The U.S. Navy announced on Sunday that two of its warships had sailed through international waters in the Taiwan Strait, dividing the democratically-controlled island from the Chinese mainland—the first such operation since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit in early August.
The Navy emphasized in its statement describing the operation that its purpose was to “demonstrate … the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The statement did not name the two ships. However, anonymous sources later told Reuters they had been the USS Chancellorsville and the USS Antietam, two Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers.
The Navy operation also marks the first transiting of the strait since China’s large-scale military drills around the island, which some Taiwanese commanders warned were intended to prepare the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for an invasion. Taiwanese troops quickly countered with their own exercises and unveiled the Taiwanese Air Force’s new “F-16V” fighter jets later in the month.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan marked the first time since 1997 that a Speaker of the House—the third-highest ranking politician in the United States—had visited Taiwan. In the run-up to the speaker’s trip, Chinese officials reacted with hostility, warning that the visit violated the “One China” principle and would come as part of a dramatic escalation in cross-strait tensions. Pelosi and the White House have since insisted that the visit would not impact the U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China.
Pelosi’s visit also prompted several other visits by U.S. lawmakers to the island, prompting Chinese condemnation but not leading to further steps. One week after the speaker’s return to the United States, a second delegation of U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) traveled to the island and met with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. On Thursday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) also visited the island.
Although the current government of mainland China—governed by the Communist Party since its victory in China’s civil war in 1949—has never actually controlled Taiwan, it has always viewed the island as a rebellious province whose government is controlled by the United States. Chinese leaders have laid out expansive legal and moral justifications for reunification and have characterized such a reunification as the final step towards a “national rejuvenation” of Chinese identity. Beijing has also conspicuously insisted on its right to conquer the island by force if necessary, although it has always maintained that such a step would be a last resort.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.