US Navy Lt. Hillary Lutkus tracks air contacts on board the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) while it transits the Taiwan Strait on Jan. 5, 2023. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard.
Two weeks after a Chinese fighter pilot tangled with a US Air Force spy plane over the disputed Paracel Islands, America’s guided-missile destroyer Chung-Hoon made a provocative transit through the Taiwan Strait.
On Thursday, Jan. 5, the Arleigh Burke-class warship sailed solo through the narrow passage, which separates the People’s Republic of China from the breakaway state of Taiwan. The US considers the strait open to international travel. Beijing claims sovereign rights over what it calls an internal waterway.
“The ship transited through a corridor in the Strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state,” read a communiqué released Thursday evening by US Indo-Pacific Command. “Chung-Hoon’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military flies, sails and operates anywhere international law allows.”
Chung-Hoon usually serves as an anti-ballistic missile escort in the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group.
Neither Chinese diplomats nor the state-controlled military press responded to Chung-Hoon’s transit, and Indo-Pacom offered few details about the incident.
US Navy Lt. j.g. Alec Pagach stands watch as junior officer of the deck on board the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Chung-Hoon (DDG 93). Chung-Hoon, part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, is currently underway in the 7th Fleet's area of operations. US Navy photos by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard.
But Taiwan’s foreign ministry indicated the US destroyer sailed north, from the South China Sea to the East China Sea. Taiwanese forces monitored the transit, and said China’s military made no effort to confront the US warship, making the situation seem “normal.”
That wasn’t the case near the Paracel Islands on Dec. 21.
Indo-Pacific Command contends that a Chinese J-11BSH Shenyan (Flanker-L+) pilot nearly collided with a US RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea earlier that day, but provided few details about the incident, except to note that the interceptor came within 20 feet of the plane’s nose.
Armed with many more tidbits, on Dec. 31, China’s Southern Theater Command released an 18-second video on social media that claimed the American reconnaissance aircraft “deliberately changed its flight altitude” and “approached our plane dangerously” before it “squeezed” the Shenyan pilot, who turned to avoid a collision.
Chinese forces off Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea monitor the US guided-missile destroyer Chancellorsville on Nov. 29, 2022. Southern Theater Command photo.
Chung-Hoon’s transit appeared to turn the temperature up in what's already a simmering sea.
After analyzing US aviation data, the Chinese nonprofit South China Sea Probing Initiative announced on Tuesday that US spy planes conducted 68 reconnaissance sorties in December, 17 more than American forces flew in November.
And on Nov. 29, the US Navy’s guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville ran a freedom of navigation operation — FONOP — near Fiery Cross Reef, a South China Sea atoll fortified by China.
The US warship was shadowed during the mission by a US P-8A Poseidon maritime reconnaissance jet, drawing an uncommonly harsh message from Southern Theater Command that the American forces “trespassed” on sovereign Chinese territory.
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Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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