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Chinese carrier sails across Taiwan Strait, hours before the Biden-Xi call

Taiwan China Conflict
In this picture, chess pieces are seen in front of the Chinese and Taiwanese flags. Image Credit 

Reuters: According to Taiwan's Defense Ministry, a Chinese aircraft carrier passed through the strategic Taiwan Strait on Friday, just hours before the Chinese and US presidents were scheduled to meet.

China claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has increased military action near the island in recent years to assert its sovereignty claims, frightening Taipei and the United States.

The carrier Shandong passed close to the Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, which sits right next to the Chinese city of Xiamen, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the subject who was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"The CV-17 appeared about 10:30 a.m., around 30 nautical miles southwest of Kinmen, and was recorded by a traveler on a civilian flight," the source said, referring to the Shandong's official service number.

The carrier was tailed by the USS Ralph Johnson, an Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer, for at least part of its journey. The Shandong had no aircraft onboard and went north through the strait, according to the source.

According to the source, Taiwan also deployed warships to monitor the situation.

In a brief statement, Taiwan's Defense Ministry confirmed the Shandong's passage but provided no other specifics, other than to declare that its forces had a "complete understanding" of what China's ships and aircraft do in the Taiwan Strait.

Lt. Mark Langford, a spokesman for the US Navy, stated that Ralph Johnson "conducted a regular Taiwan Strait transit in international seas in compliance with international law" on March 17 (local time). He didn't go into detail.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, forwarded inquiries to the Defense Ministry, which did not respond to a request for comment, but noted Shandong has a "regular training schedule."

"This should not be confused with the communication between China's and the US's heads of state. It's possible that you'll think it's excessively sensitive. You are the one who is sensitive, not the Taiwan Strait "Zhao told Beijing reporters.

The sailing took place roughly 12 hours before US President Joe Biden was set to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

The timing of the Shandong's movement so close to that call was "provocative," according to the source, who added that it was odd that it sailed during daylight hours, as prior operations had taken place at night.

China's navy announced in April that a carrier group led by the Liaoning, the country's first aircraft carrier, was conducting routine maneuvers in the waters near Taiwan.

Taiwan is already on high alert as a result of the Ukraine conflict, fearful that China may take advantage of the situation to make a move of its own, despite no indications that Beijing is planning any type of military action.

The transit of Shandong, according to Lo Chih-cheng, a prominent politician from Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, is a "highly provocative message" at a time when countries in the region are already worried by the crisis in Ukraine and only hours before Biden-call. Xi's

"Tensions across the Taiwan Strait will not rise dramatically as a result of this," he told Reuters, "but it will almost certainly force neighboring countries to boost their military alert level."

China claims that Taiwan is the most critical and sensitive subject in its diplomatic cooperation with the US. Taiwan's most major international backer and arms supplier is the United States, which has no official diplomatic ties with Taipei.

Taiwan has consistently stated that it will protect its independence and democracy in the face of China's claims to sovereignty.

The Shandong is expected to be on its way up to northern China for next month's celebrations celebrating the creation of China's navy, according to Kuo Yu-Jen, a security specialist at Taiwan's National Sun Yat-sen University.

"It was not carrying any aircraft and was not accompanied by any frigates," he continued.

China's newest aircraft carrier, the Shandong, was launched in 2019.

It sailed through the Taiwan Strait in December 2019, right before Taiwan's presidential and legislature elections, a move Taiwan criticized as an attempt at intimidation.

Taiwan's air force also deploys jets on a daily basis to intercept Chinese warplanes flying into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, primarily in the southern portion of the strait at the top of the South China Sea.

Source: Reuters. Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, and Martin Pollard in Beijing, editing by Gerry Doyle and Angus MacSwan.

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