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Seaman Frank Medina of Dallas, Texas, scans the horizon from the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain in the Taiwan Strait, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
Seaman Frank Medina of Dallas, Texas, scans the horizon from the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain in the Taiwan Strait, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Markus Castaneda/U.S. Navy)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steamed through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday, marking the Navy’s first trip through the contentious waterway in 2021, according to a Navy statement.

Seventh Fleet spokesman Lt. Joe Keiley called the sail “routine” and “in accordance with international law.”

“The ship's transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said in the statement.

The contested, 110-mile-wide waterway separates mainland China from the self-governed Taiwan. Beijing considers reunification a top priority and regularly protests Taiwan Strait transits, asserting that foreign vessels must first ask permission before sailing through.

However, international law considers the strait an open waterway, Keiley said.

“The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows," he said in the statement.

The transit came less than two weeks after China sent eight nuclear-capable bombers and four fighter jets into the airspace southwest of Taiwan. The act was meant to pressure the island’s leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, “into caving to Beijing’s demand that she recognize Taiwan as a part of Chinese territory,” The Associated Press reported Jan. 23.

The U.S. State Department in a statement the same day noted “with concern the pattern of [China’s] ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”

“We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability,” department spokesman Ned Price said in the statement. “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

The U.S. last sent a vessel through the Taiwan Strait on Dec. 31, marking its 13th passage through the waterway in 2020. That trip broke the Navy’s previous record of 12 such transits in one year, which was set in 2016.

caitlin.doornbos@stripes.com Twitter: @CaitlinDoornbos

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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