Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — After the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in early August, the Chinese military organized some of its largest military exercises around the island.
Chinese warplanes crossed the Taiwan Strait and the People’s Liberation Army came to fire missiles on Taiwan, the democratically governed island that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its sovereign territory despite never having controlled it.
Those Chinese military exercises marked what some analysts and officials feared was a “new normal” in the strait: a more permanent presence of the Chinese Armed Forces ever closer to Taiwan.
US officials, for their part, promised that Washington would stay the course and that Chinese intimidation tactics would be challenged.
On Sunday, the US Navy sent two guided-missile ships through the strait, which China now claims as its “inland waters.” The US and other countries maintain that the strait is international water, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It was the first time in at least four years that the US Navy had sent two ships through the strait, said Collin Koh, a researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, which has maintained a database on the transits.
The fact of having two ships for this mission, instead of one, as usual, is undoubtedly a “major” sign of protest, not only against the recent military maneuvers by Beijing around Taiwan after Pelosi’s visit, but also in response to Beijing’s attempt to subvert the legal status of the waterway and long-standing freedom of navigation rights in the area,” Koh said.
The fact that US warships made the transit on Sunday was not a surprise. They have made dozens of such trips in recent years, and US officials had said the transits would continue.
What surprised analysts was Beijing’s muted response.
China’s Army Eastern Command said it was monitoring the two ships, maintaining high alert and being “prepared to thwart any provocation.”
Even the state-run Global Times tabloid, known for its often ultra-nationalist editorials, said the presence of the two ships posed “no real threat to China’s security”.
Previous transits have elicited a more forceful response. After the destroyer USS Benfold passed through the strait in July, Colonel Shi Yi, a spokesman for China’s Army Eastern Command, described the United States as the “destroyer of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
While earlier this month, China’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, called on the US to halt the naval transits, saying they escalate tensions and embolden “Taiwan independence separatist forces.”
“If there is any move that damages China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, China will respond,” Qin told reporters in Washington in response to a question about possible upcoming transits.
Analyst Koh noted that Beijing’s remarks on Sunday were comparatively milder.
“Why didn’t the Chinese go further, given their earlier strong opposition to Washington’s stated intention to continue such transits?” he said, offering three possible factors.
First, Beijing may be wary of “international backlash,” as any attempt to restrict US Navy navigation through the strait could be seen as a threat to the rights of other ships. nations to traverse the waterway.
Second, following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing suspended major military communication channels with Washington, increasing the risk of misunderstanding during any interaction between the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the US Navy.
Third, there are other areas where Washington and Beijing do cooperate, and China may not want to add to the tension, Koh said.
“It makes no sense to provoke an increase in tensions that could lead to a confrontation,” he said.
Carl Schuster, former director of operations for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, suggests a fourth possibility.
“I believe that [el líder de China, Xi Jinping] he will avoid any action that might bolster the chances of Republicans and other China hawks in the upcoming election. He doesn’t want a House and Senate that can enact legislation that more strongly supports Taiwan, or that limits Chinese investment and influence in the United States,” Schuster said.
In the meantime, he added, the use of two ships in the latest transit through the strait might not be seen so much as a statement, but as reasonable military planning.
“Given the threats from China and the recent missile fire in international waters … it seems prudent for two warships to transit those waters together,” Schuster said.
And he hopes the US Navy will continue as usual with its regular transits through the strait, he said.
“Under international law, these are international waters and therefore there is no official dispute over their status,” he said. “The US Navy transit makes that statement quietly and effectively.”