Chinese warships have been detected near Taiwan after U.S. navy’s strait transit

Small formations of Chinese warships were detected off the coast of southeast Taiwan on three consecutive days, Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency reported on Wednesday, the maneuvers coming shortly after the U.S. Navy sailed one of its advanced combat vessels nearby.

A group of three People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships sailed within 35 nautical miles of Taiwan’s Orchid Island, heading south late on Monday, CNA said, citing an unnamed military source. The outlying island, popular with tourists, is 22.5 nautical miles southeast of Taiwan proper.

According to the report, a single southbound Chinese guided-missile frigate was detected 50 nautical miles off Orchid Island between 7 and 11 p.m. local time the following day. On Wednesday, Taiwan navy radars picked up a fleet of three PLA vessels 50 nautical miles east of the same island. The warships were moving south into the Bashi Channel by 8 a.m. on Thursday, CNA said.

The Chinese navy maneuvers brought the ships the closest they had been to Taiwan’s territorial waters in recent memory. The Taiwanese navy told the news service that all marine traffic around the island was being monitored.

Thanks to publicly available data released by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, the PLA’s near-daily incursions into the island’s air defense identification zone are well known, but less is said about Chinese vessels in the vicinity. Taipei has yet to disclose the extent of its naval radar capabilities.

Analysts believe the Chinese naval ships were likely returning to port following exercises elsewhere but had been purposely directed past Taiwan in a subtle show of force, a response the United States’ own moves to reassure Taipei, following Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine.

In a rare case of military signaling on February 26—two days after hostilities began in Europe—the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet announced the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson was sailing through the Taiwan Strait while it was still transiting. Generally, these announcements occur after such an operation. Twelve such transits were reported in 2021, averaging one per month. There have been two this year so far.

The Chinese military at the time described the move as “provocative.” On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry likened the ship to “scrap metal.”

“The gimmick of sending vessels to sail through the Taiwan Strait is better saved to entertain those obsessed with hegemony,” said ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. He said the U.S. would “pay a heavy price” for emboldening Taiwan.

Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin started a war with Ukraine, observers predicted China’s leader, Xi Jinping, might seek to do the same by annexing Taiwan. President Joe Biden, in a bid to allay such concerns, dispatched a delegation of high-ranking former U.S. officials to Taipei this week.