U.S. playing dangerous game, China says, after warship sails through Taiwan Strait

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) - China accused the United States on Thursday of playing a dangerous game with its support for Taiwan, after a U.S. warship passed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait following heightened military tension between China and Taiwan.

China has been angered by the Trump administration's stepped-up support for the island it considers its own, such as more arms sales, U.S. patrols near Taiwan and last month's visit to Washington by Taiwan Vice President-elect William Lai.

Anthony Junco, a spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell conducted "a routine Taiwan Strait transit" on March 25, in line with international law.

"The ship's transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," he added. "The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows."

Taiwan's defence ministry said the ship sailed north through the waterway and was monitored by Taiwan's armed forces, on what it called an "ordinary mission", adding there was no cause for alarm.

In Beijing, Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang denounced "continued negative actions" by the United States on Taiwan, including sailings through and flights over the Taiwan Strait.

"U.S. moves have seriously interfered in China's internal affairs, severely harmed peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and poisoned Sino-U.S. military ties," Ren told a monthly news conference.

The actions were "extremely dangerous", he added.

Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial and diplomatic issue and Beijing has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control. The narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the island from China is a frequent source of tension.

In recent weeks China's air force has conducted several exercises close to Taiwan, prompting its mostly U.S.-equipped military to scramble fighters to intercept and warn away the Chinese aircraft.

Taiwan has called the drills provocative, and urged China to pay more attention to fighting a coronavirus pandemic, rather than menace it.

The United States, like most countries, has no official relations with Taiwan, but is the island's most important international supporter and main source of arms.

In January another U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait less than a week after President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election by a landslide on a platform of standing up to China.

Tsai visited a military base on Tuesday and again warned of the threat from China during the virus outbreak.

"Everyone knows that although at present there is an intense epidemic situation, the Chinese Communists' military aircraft continue to harass Taiwan," she said. "Their threat to Taiwan and regional security has not gone down."

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Gerry Doyle)