TAIPEI, Taiwan — Two U.S. warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait over the weekend, Taiwan’s defense ministry said Monday, in a move that Beijing said threatened to hinder U.S.-China relations.
The ministry said the ships made the passage on Sunday, sailing from south to north through the waterway that divides the self-governing island from mainland China.
USNI News reported that the guided-missile destroyers Stethem and William P. Lawrence passed through the 110-mile-wide strait.
Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters in Tokyo that U.S. Navy ships will continue to operate freely in international waters, including the possibility of an aircraft carrier navigating through the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing frequently objects to the movement of foreign military vessels in the strait based on its claim to Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary.
Taiwan's defense ministry said U.S. ships were free to sail through the Taiwan Strait as part of their "strategic Indo-Pacific tasks." Despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, the U.S. is a key ally of Taiwan and provider of defensive weapons.
China has been increasingly willing to protest actions by foreign militaries in areas it considers its home waters or sphere of influence. That especially applies to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday that China has expressed concern to the U.S. about the warships.
The cutter Bertholf had been patrolling the East China Sea to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea.
The U.S. should handle Taiwan-related issues "prudently" in order to avoid negatively impacting its relationship with China, Geng said, adding that "the Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations."
Last week, Beijing complained to France after a French warship entered Chinese territorial waters while traversing the Taiwan Strait, and blamed British naval activity in the South China Sea for a downturn in bilateral relations.