A game of diplomatic brinkmanship is unfolding between China and the United States over one of the world's key – and potentially most explosive – waterways.
As China tries to move incrementally closer to its goal of controlling Taiwan, it has sought to upend the status quo surrounding the Taiwan Strait, declaring it holds sovereignty over the strategic passage.
Taiwan says the the seas are an "international waterway" – an assertion strongly backed by the United States.
However last week, China's Foreign Ministry said the country "has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait" and called it "a false claim when certain countries call the Taiwan Strait 'international waters'."
According to Bloomberg, the unprecedented claim – which Taipei has labelled "absurd" – was presented by Chinese officials to their US counterparts in recent meetings but the rising superpower has only now gone public with it.
On Monday, it reported officials in the White House have decided to reject China's vague assertion but are concerned it could set the stage for potential conflict as the US promises to continue its "freedom of navigation" exercises through the water that separates China and Taiwan.
US warships, and on occasion those from allied nations, have sailed through the strait in recent years, consistently drawing anger from Beijing.
Officials in the Biden administration told Bloomberg that it wasn’t clear yet whether China would take practical steps to enforce its newly stated position.
But the latest remarks from China have sparkled concern in the media that it could seek "to close" the Taiwan Straight and added fuel to the fire about the long-standing prospect of the region sparking major conflict.
US officials said they're concerned the claim may be a deliberate effort to muddy the legal interpretation of the sea around #Taiwan to suggest that #China regards it as an internal waterway. The administration has already conveyed its position to Beijing https://t.co/zgBHSx4W0q
— Douglas Wong (@WongDouglas) June 19, 2022
Ahead of China taking its claim public, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in an email to Reuters: "The Taiwan Strait is an international waterway, meaning that the Taiwan Strait is an area where high seas freedoms, including freedom of navigation and overflight, are guaranteed under international law."
The world has "an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and we consider this central to the security and prosperity of the broader Indo-Pacific region," he added.
Mr Price reiterated US concerns about China's "aggressive rhetoric and coercive activity regarding Taiwan" and said the United States "would continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and that includes transiting through the Taiwan Strait."
The key passageway – which ranges in width from about 130 kilometres to 400 kms – is a "wild card" issue for global security, professor John Blaxland from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific told Yahoo News Australia in 2020.
"The prospect of conflict is alive and well over Taiwan," he said at the time.
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