16:54 GMT19 April 2021
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    On 31 March, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence reported that two Chinese J-11 fighter jets had been spotted over the Taiwan Strait, crossing the so-called "median line". Speaking to Sputnik, Russian scholar Andrei Karneev commented on what could be behind the alleged aerial incident.

    Two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the Taiwan Strait's "median line" on 31 March, prompting Taipei to scramble several aircraft in order to intercept the warplanes, according to Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence (MND).

    Following the incident, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing Wen vowed that Taipei would conduct a "forceful expulsion" of any Chinese aircraft violating the "median line". For its part, the US warned Beijing against "altering the status quo" and the use of "force or coercion".

    Beijing has not provided an official comment on the matter. However, Global Times, a Chinese daily newspaper, rubbished the claims, stressing that "the Chinese mainland has never recognized [the median line]". Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway Chinese island.

    "The ‘middle line' is fictitious and psychological comfort to the Taiwan authorities. The Chinese mainland has never recognized it", the newspaper wrote. "Hence, even if PLA fighter jets did cross it, how the situation develops depends on Taiwan and US reactions… Washington has gone too far by sending warships to sail through the Straits thrice this year".

    The reported Chinese aerial manoeuvres over the Taiwan Strait, a 112-mile channel separating the mainland from the island, could have been a message to Washington, Deputy Director of the Institute of Asian and African Countries of Moscow State University Andrei Karneev told Sputnik.

    Having ruled out the possibility of "direct conflict", the scholar opined that the alleged aerial incident was an apparent signal that Beijing is ready to raise the stakes in the region over the rapprochement between Washington and Taipei.

    The trend first emerged when then President-elect Donald Trump received a phone call from Taiwan's head Tsai Ing-wen on 2 December 2016. The move prompted a storm of criticism from China.

    Like the majority of global players, the US recognises only Beijing according to the "one China policy" principle. However, it has maintained relations with Taiwan since 1979 under the Taiwan Relations Act.

    However, Trump's National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year of 2019 has stepped up US-Taiwanese cooperation, including provisions aimed at boosting Taiwan's military capabilities, among other issues.

    Section 1257 of the law says that "the Secretary of Defence shall, in consultation with appropriate counterparts of Taiwan, conduct a comprehensive assessment of Taiwan's military forces, particularly Taiwan's reserves", adding that the assessment "shall provide recommendations to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, readiness, and resilience of Taiwan's self-defence capability".

    Karneev presumed that the US president had weaponised the Taiwan issue to exert pressure on Beijing regardless of the fact that in personal contacts with Xi Jinping, Donald Trump has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to the "one-China" policy.

    The Russian scholar added that the alleged aerial manoeuvres over the Taiwan Strait could have also been prompted by Washington's apparent plans to sell over 60 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets to Taipei.

    Bloomberg reported on 31 March that "Trump administration officials have given tacit approval to Taipei's request" to buy the jet fighters, citing people familiar with the matter.

    US Flexing Military Muscle in Taiwan Strait

    Meanwhile, Washington is beefing up its military presence in the region.

    On 24 March, two American warships, the US Navy guided-missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur and US Coast Guard cutter Bertholf, sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

    Commenting on the issue, Cmdr. Clayton Doss, spokesman for the 7th Fleet, noted that the destroyers had conducted a "routine Taiwan Strait transit" which was "in accordance with international law".

    "The ships' transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific", Cmdr. Doss said in an official statement.

    However, Fox News presumed that the operation was aimed at sending "a message to the Chinese government ahead of high-level trade talks between the two nations". Beijing and Washington have yet to set the date for mutual talks on the trade frictions simmering between the countries since March 2018.

    Beijing strongly protested the transit, stressing that this practice could undermine Sino-American relations.

    "China has been closely monitoring from start to end the passage by the US warships through the Taiwan Strait. China has lodged stern representations with the US", Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

    The US has stepped up patrol missions in the Taiwan Strait since summer 2018. In late January 2019, Washington sent the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell and the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl there in order to "demonstrate the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific", as US Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman commented in a statement.

    On 25 February, a similar mission was carried out by the USS Stethem and USNS Cesar Chavez. Commenting on the operation, Lt. Cmdr. Gorman told USNI News that "the US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows".

    The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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