Satellite Image Captures US-China Warship Tension Near Taiwan-Held Island

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A U.S. Navy destroyer was followed by a Chinese warship and several armed fishing boats as it asserted navigational rights in the South China Sea last week, according to a newly released satellite image.

The aerial shot shared to X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday by Vietnam-based maritime security researcher Duan Dang showed the USS Dewey sailing past Taiwan-held Itu Aba in the contested Spratly Islands during its freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, on November 3. Close behind were three Chinese maritime militia vessels and at least one Chinese navy ship.

The satellite capture was but a snapshot of the long-running tension between Chinese and American forces operating in the South China Sea as well as in the wider Indo-Pacific region, which the Biden administration says remains a priority theater in spite of the resources the United States has allocated to the Russia-Ukraine war in Europe and now the renewed Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East.

A satellite photo shared by Vietnam-based expert Duan Dang captures American and Chinese ships operating near Taiwan-held Itu Aba on November 3, 2023, in the South China Sea.
Duan Dang/X

The Navy’s latest run-in with China’s maritime forces was the subject of reports in Taiwan on Monday after Chinese-language newspaper United Daily News said the U.S. and Chinese ships were heard exchanging radio messages at the time of the FONOP, which Beijing didn’t formally protest, presumably due to its lack of de facto control over Itu Aba.

However, the presence of Chinese ships near the island nonetheless suggested an attempt by China to assert sovereignty over it and by extension democratically governed Taiwan, which it claims as part of its territory despite Taipei’s repeated rejections.

The Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, which announced the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer’s FONOP last Friday, didn’t return an emailed request to comment on the nature of any interactions between the Dewey and People’s Liberation Army or Chinese maritime militia vessels, which the Taiwanese newspaper said were visible from Itu Aba.

The Navy didn’t name the disputed Spratly Islands feature around which the Dewey‘s operation took place, but it still caused a stir in Taipei by “challenging restrictions on innocent passage,” which, according to international maritime law, meant that the U.S. warship had sailed through the territorial waters within 12 nautical miles of Itu Aba.

“The [People’s Republic of China], Vietnam and Taiwan each require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel or warship engages in ‘innocent passage’ through their territorial sea, in violation of international law,” the Seventh Fleet said.

“The United States upholds freedom of navigation for all nations as a principle. As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all,” it added.

U.S.-China Naval Encounter Seen In Satellite Photo
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey conducts routine underway operations in the South China Sea on November 3, 2023. The Dewey conducted a freedom of navigation operation near the contested Spratly Islands, the third such operation in the region this year and the first in six months.
U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Greg Johnson

Quizzed in Taiwan’s parliament on Monday, Taipei’s head of intelligence, Tsai Ming-yen, told opposition lawmakers on the island’s Foreign and National Defense Committee that personnel on Itu Aba had monitored all foreign ship movements. He repeatedly declined to confirm whether the American or Chinese vessels had entered the island’s territorial sea.

Located nearly 1,000 miles southwest of Taiwan, Itu Aba, which Taipei calls Taiping Island, is the largest naturally occurring feature in the Spratly Islands, whose claimants also include China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The Taiwanese government also exercises control over Pratas Island, or Dongsha, which is closer—about 280 miles southwest of Taiwan.

While the Communist Party’s designs on Taiwan proper remain the main focus of Taipei and Washington’s collective defense preparations—Chinese warplanes have flown more than 4,600 sorties near the island since September 2020—the potential capture of outlying Taiwanese islands has long been posited as one possible scenario through which Beijing could coerce Taipei into surrendering political control.

Taiwan maintains runways and ports on Itu Aba and Pratas, but it has no intention of pursuing the type of island-building and militarization undertaken by China, Chiu Kuo-cheng, Taiwan’s defense minister, said last year, citing the need to signal Taipei’s desire for peace.

The sentiment was echoed on Monday by Tsai, Taiwan’s spy chief, who rejected a renewed call to station Taiwanese marines on Itu Aba, as it does on Pratas.

Around 200 Taiwan Coast Guard personnel are stationed on Itu Aba and receive regular training from the country’s marines, said Tsai, who later added that larger Coast Guard ships would resume patrols to the island in the near future.

Any decision to put Taiwanese marines on Itu Aba would first require a “holistic assessment” of the regional situation, Tsai said.

“Actions will be considered based on the actual situation. If the circumstances are not right, any action we take might be seen from the outside as provoking regional tensions. This requires very careful assessment,” he said.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry didn’t return a written request for comment.