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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aircraft Carrier's Passage Sends Warning to China

BEIJING -- When Taiwanese newspapers reported Friday that a U.S. aircraft carrier had recently passed through the Taiwan Strait near the coast of China, U.S. officials blamed bad weather for the unusual route. But many analysts have interpreted it as a sign of rising temperatures between the United States and China over Taiwan's upcoming elections.

The Dec. 19 voyage of the USS Nimitz and four escort vessels, confirmed by U.S. officials, was viewed as a message from Washington to Beijing to refrain from any military action against Taiwan, a self-governing island that China regards as a renegade province.

"Weather is the convenient rationale, but there's no question in my mind that sailing the Nimitz through the strait is a conscious political signal and reminder to Beijing," said Jonathan Pollack, an international relations expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank in Los Angeles.

Normally, aircraft carriers in the region pass to the east of Taiwan, on the Pacific Ocean side away from China, especially when they are coming from the United States, as the Nimitz was in December. The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that the Hong Kong Royal Observatory said it had no record of a tropical storm off Taiwan at the time of the Nimitz voyage.

The Pentagon said U.S. vessels have passed through the 200-kilometer-wide strait before en route between Japan and Hong Kong, since it is an international waterway. And some analysts said the only message being sent was one from Taiwan's government, which is believed to have leaked the month-old news of the Nimitz voyage to the Taiwanese people, whose fears were fanned last week by a New York Times report that China was contemplating a plan to lob a shell a day into the island after the elections.

Why all the fuss about messages? For months, China has been threatening to take military action against Taiwan if the self-governing island formally declares itself independent or continues to campaign for greater international status. Those threats rose in volume and frequency after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui went to the United States last summer. Although U.S. officials called it a private visit to Lee's Cornell University reunion, China viewed the trip as a breach in Taiwan's diplomatic isolation.

Chinese officials have told foreign visitors that they have weighed options such as missile attacks, a blockade or a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. Beijing has tried to lend these versions weight by firing missiles into the waters north of Taiwan or holding military exercises on the nearby coast of China's Zhejiang Province.

Most analysts regard China's threats as diplomatic posturing by a government frustrated by its inability to stymie Taiwan's own diplomatic offensive.

"I think what's going on is classic coercive diplomacy,'' said Kenneth Lieberthal, a University of Michigan professor of Chinese politics who has advised the Clinton administration. "China has put military assets in place in a fashion that lets others know what they're doing so as to gain greater credibility for their diplomacy.''