Taiwan scrambled F-16 fighter jets and dispatched a frigate to the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday after China sent its sole aircraft carrier into the waterway, Taiwan's official Central News Agency reported.
The transit of the aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, came amid rising tensions between Taiwan and China after President-elect Donald J Trump broke decades of protocol by speaking on the phone with Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, after his election victory. Tsai leads a political party that has traditionally supported Taiwan's formal independence from China.
Tsai, who is visiting Central America this week, made two calls to officials in Taiwan seeking updates on the Liaoning's transit, the Central News Agency reported, citing Alex Huang, the president's spokesman. China's decision to send the carrier through the waterway that separates it from Taiwan reflects an early foreign policy challenge for Trump.
''It's a show of force, and I think it is intended in part to intimidate, and that's worrisome from the US and Taiwan's point of view because we don't know how much more they are going to ratchet up these pressures and tensions,'' Bonnie S Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The New York Times. ''If the Trump administration does see this as a test of US resolve, I suspect they'll push back pretty forcefully.''
China sent the carrier, which had been conducting exercises in the South China Sea, into the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday morning. Taiwan's response was the third time in three days that air forces in the region had scrambled jets in response to Chinese military activity, after Japan and South Korea deployed fighters on Monday. Those actions occurred when a squadron of six Chinese bombers and two other aircraft flew over the waters that separate Japan and South Korea and over the Sea of Japan.
Taiwan, considered by Beijing to be Chinese territory, has been governed separately since 1949, when the forces of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after their defeat on the mainland by the Communists. China views any assertion of Taiwan's separateness from the mainland - like Tsai's call with Trump - as an affront to its claim of sovereignty.
Since 1979, the United States has recognised the government in Beijing and broke off formal diplomatic ties to Taiwan as part of the One China policy. In the wake of the Trump-Tsai call, China warned the incoming president against making changes to that policy after he takes office on 20 January.
Liu Zhenmin, a Chinese vice foreign minister, said on Wednesday that the Taiwan Strait was an international waterway and that it was normal for the Liaoning to pass through it. The passage would not have any effect on cross-strait relations, he said in remarks carried in the Chinese news media.
Mark C Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington in response to a question about the Liaoning's passage through the strait that the United States ''wouldn't have a problem'' with countries sailing their vessels in international waters as long as it was done in accordance with international law.
The Liaoning, commissioned in 2012 and built from a Soviet hull, is China's first aircraft carrier. In past decades, the United States has shown its resolve to defend Taiwan by sailing carriers through the Taiwan Strait. In 1995, the aircraft carrier Nimitz transited the strait amid heightened tensions after Beijing conducted missile exercises in the waters.
Last Thursday, the front page of People's Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese military, featured a report about the aircraft carrier's latest journey under the headline, ''We're sailing under the leader's attentive gaze,'' a clear tribute to Xi.