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US Navy, Coast Guard ships pass through strategic Taiwan Strait

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, the military said, as the United States increases the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.

The voyage risks further raising tensions with China but will likely be viewed by self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from Washington amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.

The two ships were identified as the Navy Curtis Wilbur destroyer and the Coast Guard Bertholf cutter, a U.S. military statement said.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the statement said.

“The U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” it added.

There was no immediate reaction from Beijing.

In Taipei, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the ships had passed through the Taiwan Strait from the southwest and proceeded in a northerly direction.

Taiwan’s armed forces monitored their progress to “ensure regional stability and security of the coastal border region,” the ministry said, adding nothing out of the ordinary was observed and there was no cause for alarm.

The USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), the U.S. 7th Fleet Flagship, is anchored off Manila Bay west of Manila, the Philippines for a routine port call on March 13, 2019.  APThe USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), the U.S. 7th Fleet Flagship, is anchored off Manila Bay west of Manila, the Philippines for a routine port call on March 13, 2019. AP

Taiwan is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a trade war, U.S. sanctions and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom of navigation patrols.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will stop over in Hawaii this week at the end of a tour of the Pacific, to China’s anger.

Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms.

The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taiwan more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

China has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island, which it considers a wayward province of “one China” and sacred Chinese territory.

China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island on drills in the past few years and worked to isolate the island internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency released a report earlier this year describing Taiwan as the “primary driver” for China’s military modernization, which it said had made major advances in recent years.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said trade negotiations with China were progressing and a final agreement “will probably happen,” adding that his call for tariffs to remain on Chinese imported goods for some time did not mean talks were in trouble.