Exclusive: Chinese airline sails through Taiwan Strait hours ahead of Biden-Xi call – source

FILE PHOTO: Image shows the flags of China and Taiwan
FILE PHOTO: Chessmen are seen in front of the flags of China and Taiwan in this January 25, 2022 illustration. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

March 18, 2022

By Yimou Lee

TAIPEI (Reuters) – China on Friday sailed an aircraft carrier through the sensitive Taiwan Strait shadowed by a US destroyer, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said, just hours before the Chinese and US presidents were due to speak.

China claims democratically-ruled Taiwan as its own territory and has increased military activity near the island over the past two years to assert its claims to sovereignty, alarming Taipei and Washington.

The source, who was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the Shandong airline sailed near the Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, which is directly across from the Chinese city of Xiamen.

“Around 10:30 am, the CV-17 surfaced about 30 nautical miles southwest of Kinmen and was photographed by a passenger on a civilian plane,” the source said, referring to Shandong’s official service number.

The USS Ralph Johnson, a guided missile destroyer owned by Arleigh Burke, shadowed the carrier, which had no planes on its deck, and sailed north through the straits, the source added.

Taiwan also sent warships to keep an eye on the situation, the source said.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry declined to comment, but said its armed forces are always closely monitoring Chinese activities in the Taiwan Straits and are “reacting in accordance with standard procedures.”

US Navy spokesman Lt. Mark Langford said the Ralph Johnson “performed a routine cross-strait transit through international waters in accordance with international law on March 17 (local time).” He didn’t elaborate.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian referred questions to the Defense Ministry – which did not immediately respond to a request for comment – but said Shandong has a “routine training schedule”.

“We should not associate this with communications between Chinese and United States leaders. You may think it’s too delicate. Sensitive is you, not the Strait of Taiwan,” Zhao told reporters in Beijing.


The sailing came about 12 hours ahead of US President Joe Biden’s scheduled talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The source described the timing of the Shandong’s movement so close to this call as “provocative” and that it was unusual for her to sail during the day while previous missions took place at night.

Last April, the Chinese Navy said a carrier group led by the Liaoning, the country’s first aircraft carrier to enter active service, was conducting routine exercises in the waters near Taiwan.

Taiwan is already on heightened alert over the Ukraine war and fears China is taking advantage of the situation to make its own move, although there are no signs Beijing is planning any sort of military strike.

Lo Chih-cheng, a senior lawmaker from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party who sits on the parliament’s defense and foreign affairs committees, called the transit of the Shandong a “very provocative message” when countries in the region are already going through the war in Ukraine and The Biden Xi call was alarmed hours earlier.

“It won’t increase cross-strait tensions much, but it will likely result in neighboring countries raising their military alert levels,” he told Reuters.

China says Taiwan is the most sensitive and important issue in its relations with the United States. Washington has no formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, but is Taiwan’s top international supporter and arms supplier.

Taiwan has rejected China’s claims of sovereignty and has repeatedly vowed to defend its freedom and democracy.

Shandong is China’s newest aircraft carrier, entering service in 2019.

In December 2019, shortly before Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections, the Shandong crossed the Taiwan Strait in what Taiwan condemned as attempted intimidation.

Taiwan’s air force is also unleashing planes on an almost daily basis to repel Chinese warplanes flying in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, mainly in the southwestern part of the straits at the head of the South China Sea.

Taiwan calls this “grey area” war activities aimed at both testing its responses and wearing down Taiwan’s air force.

(Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Martin Pollard in Beijing; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Angus MacSwan) Exclusive: Chinese airline sails through Taiwan Strait hours ahead of Biden-Xi call – source

Bobby Allyn

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