Russia warns UK and U.S. not to tempt fate in Black Sea

By Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia warned Britain and the United States on Friday against “tempting fate” by sending warships to the Black Sea, and said it would defend its borders using all possible means including military force.

In a statement broadcast on state television, the Defense Ministry said it was ill-advised for British and U.S. vessels to approach the coast of Crimea, a peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“We call on the Pentagon and the British navy, which are sending their warships into the Black Sea, not to tempt fate in vain,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesperson, said.

HMS Defender, a British destroyer that sailed through waters off Crimea on Wednesday, was “not more than a target” for the Black Sea fleet’s defenses, he said.

Russia considers Crimea part of its territory, but the peninsula is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.

Russia said on Wednesday it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of Black Sea waters off the coast of Crimea.

Britain rejected Russia’s account of the incident. It said it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian “gunnery exercise”, and that no bombs had been dropped.

It confirmed HMS Defender had sailed through what it said were waters belonging to Ukraine.

The British embassy in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgian the South Caucasus, wrote on Twitter on Friday that HMS Defender was set to arrive in the port city of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said separately that Washington and London were sowing strife by failing to accept Crimea was part of Russia, and that Russia was ready to defend its borders using all means, including military force.

Moscow warned Britain on Thursday that it would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea if what it called provocative actions by the British navy were repeated off the Crimean coast.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said separately on Friday that it was beginning joint navy and air force exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, where Moscow operates an air base on Syria’s coast.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Alexander Marrow and Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber, Editing by Katya Golubkova, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Exclusive: U.S. warships sail near South China Sea islands claimed by Beijing

Satellite photo dated March 28, 2018 shows Woody Island. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China on Sunday, two U.S. officials told Reuters, in a move that drew condemnation from Beijing as President Donald Trump seeks its continued cooperation on North Korea.

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.

While this operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a particularly sensitive time and just days after the Pentagon uninvited China from a major U.S.-hosted naval drill.

The U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Higgins guided-missile destroyer and the Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The U.S. military vessels carried out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels, one of the officials said.

Trump’s cancellation of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has put further strain on U.S.-China ties amid a trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

Critics of the operations, known as a “freedom of navigation,” have said that they have little impact on Chinese behavior and are largely symbolic.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.

Satellite photographs taken on May 12 showed China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody Island.

Earlier this month, China’s air force landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise in the region, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines.

The U.S. military did not directly comment on Sunday’s operation, but said U.S. forces operate in the region daily.

“We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

China’s Defense Ministry expressed its anger, saying it had sent ships and aircraft to warn the U.S. warships to leave, saying they had entered the country’s territorial waters without permission.

The move “contravened Chinese and relevant international law, seriously infringed upon Chinese sovereignty (and) harmed strategic mutual trust between the two militaries,” it said.

In a separate statement, China’s Foreign Ministry urged the United States to stop such actions.

“China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend the country’s sovereignty and security,” it added, without elaborating.

CONTESTED SEA

Pentagon officials have long complained that China has not been candid enough about its rapid military build-up and using South China Sea islands to gather intelligence in the region.

In March, a U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Chinese officials have accused Washington of viewing their country in suspicious, “Cold War” terms.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The United States has said it would like to see more international participation in freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Idress Ali in Washington; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Alexander Smith, Alexandra Hudson and Lisa Shumaker)

Britain sends frigate to escort Russian ships through English Channel

The Royal Navy's HMS Westminster escorts Russian Steregushchiy class ship Boiky (532) through the English Channel off Britain's coast, January 8, 2018. . LPhot Louise George Royal navy handout via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – A British frigate escorted Russian ships through the English Channel on Monday, Britain’s defense ministry said, adding that it was the latest sign of an upsurge in Russian naval activity near UK waters over the festive period.

Royal Navy frigate HMS Westminster was sent to monitor four Russian vessels over the weekend as they passed close to British waters, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said, and will stay with the warships as they head north.

The MoD added that two Russian frigates, Soobrazitelny and Boiky, and support vessels, Paradoks and Kola, were believed to be returning from operations in the Middle East.

“The English Channel is an absolute lifeline for the UK, and it is very important HMS Westminster and the Royal Navy maintains a watchful eye on this key strategic link,” Simon Kelly, Commanding Officer of HMS Westminster, said in a statement.

Britain said that the number of such incidents had increased in recent weeks.

Over Christmas, a British ship escorted new Russian warship Admiral Gorshkov as it passed near UK territorial waters, which Britain said was one of a four of vessels monitored during that period.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Michael Holden)

Exclusive: U.S. warship sails near islands Beijing claims in South China Sea – U.S. officials

USS Chafee, a US Navy destroyer which operates 100 percent on biofuel, sails about 150 miles (241 km) north of the island of Oahu during the RIMPAC Naval exercises off Hawaii July 18,2012. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Tuesday, three U.S. officials told Reuters, prompting anger in Beijing, even as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks Chinese cooperation in reining in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. But it was not as provocative as previous ones carried out since Trump took office in January.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, carried out normal maneuvering operations that challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

China’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that a warship, two fighter jets and a helicopter had scrambled to warn the U.S. ship away, adding it had infringed upon China’s sovereignty and security with its “provocation”.

China would further strengthen its naval and air defenses, the ministry said.

“We demand the U.S. side earnestly take steps to correct its mistakes,” it added.

Speaking earlier at a daily news briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States, and reiterated that the Paracels were Chinese territory.

“China will continue to take resolute measures to protect Chinese sovereign territory and maritime interests. China urges the U.S. to conscientiously respect China’s sovereign territory and security interests, conscientiously respect the efforts regional countries have made to protect peace and stability in the South China Sea, and stop these wrong actions.”

Next month, Trump makes his first visit to Asia as president, including a stop in China, which he has been pressuring to do more to rein in North Korea. China is North Korea’s neighbor and biggest trading partner.

Unlike in August, when a U.S. Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, officials said the destroyer on Tuesday sailed close to but not within that range of the islands.

Twelve nautical miles mark internationally recognized territorial limits. Sailing within that range is meant to show the United States does not recognize territorial claims.

The Pentagon did not comment directly on the operation, but said the United States carried out regular freedom-of-navigation operations and would continue to do so.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Experts and some U.S. officials have criticized former president Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China’s claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.

The United States has said it would like to see more international participation in freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.

NORTH KOREA ISSUE

Trump’s trip to Asia will likely be dominated by the North Korean nuclear threat. He will also visit South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

In recent weeks, North Korea has launched two missiles over Japan and conducted its sixth nuclear test, all in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and may be fast advancing toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Trump’s visit to China will reciprocate a trip to the United States made in April by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The U.S. president’s attempts to get Chinese help with North Korea have met with limited success so far, but he has gone out of his way to thank Xi for his efforts.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Peter Cooney and Nick Macfie)

U.S. Navy relieves Seventh Fleet commander in wake of collisions in Asia

FILE PHOTO: Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander, speaks to media on the status of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, and the seven missing Fitzgerald crew members, at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File photo

By Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly

WASHINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Wednesday said it had removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin after a series of collisions involving its warships in Asia as the search goes on for 10 sailors missing since the latest mishap.

Aucoin’s removal comes after a pre-dawn collision between a guided-missile destroyer and a merchant vessel east of Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, the fourth major incident in the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year.

“Admiral Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the U.S. Navy said in a press release.

Swift, who traveled to Japan to relieve Aucoin, ordered his deputy Pacific Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, to immediately take command of the powerful U.S. force.

Aucoin was due to step down next month, with Sawyer, a submariner by trade, already slated to succeed him. Aucoin came up through the Navy’s air wing as an F-14 navigator.

“I support Admiral Swift’s decision to bring in new leadership. The new Seventh Fleet Commander must help move his team forward, focusing efforts on safe and effective operations,” U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said in a statement.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

It operates over an area of 124 million square km (48 million square miles) from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

TENSE TIMES

The accident involving the USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC in the Singapore Strait came at a tense time for the U.S. Navy in Asia.

This month, the John S. McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the contested waters.

An official Chinese newspaper said on Tuesday the U.S. navy’s latest collision shows it is becoming an increasing risk to shipping in Asia despite its claims of helping to protect freedom of navigation.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

“Losing another ship now is bad timing. It may raise concern over America’s defensive capabilities and it could send the wrong signal to North Korea and China,” a senior Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force officer said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia is looking for the 10 U.S. sailors missing since Monday’s collision.

On Tuesday, U.S. Navy and Marine Divers found human remains inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the USS John S McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. The Navy has not yet announced the identities of the bodies discovered.

The U.S. Navy is also working to identify a body found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site. Photos posted on the Twitter account of a Malaysian navy frigate on Wednesday showed crew carrying what appeared to be a body to a U.S. Navy helicopter.

The latest collision has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in U.S. Navy operations.

The John S. McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven U.S. sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

(Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO, writing by Sam Holmes and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Himani Sarkar)

North Korea state media warns of nuclear strike if provoked as U.S. warships approach

A general view of an annual central report meeting in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang April 9, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

By Sue-Lin Wong

PYONGYANG (Reuters) – North Korean state media on Tuesday warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of U.S. aggression as a U.S. Navy strike group steamed towards the western Pacific.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has urged China to do more to rein in its impoverished neighbour, said in a Tweet North Korea was “looking for trouble” and the United States would “solve the problem” with or without China’s help.

Tension has escalated sharply on the Korean peninsula with talk of military action by the United States gaining traction following its strikes last week against Syria and amid concerns the reclusive North may soon conduct a sixth nuclear test.

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the country was prepared to respond to any aggression by the United States.

“Our revolutionary strong army is keenly watching every move by enemy elements with our nuclear sight focused on the U.S. invasionary bases not only in South Korea and the Pacific operation theatre but also in the U.S. mainland,” it said.

South Korean acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn warned of “greater provocations” by North Korea and ordered the military to intensify monitoring and to ensure close communication with the United States.

“It is possible the North may wage greater provocations such as a nuclear test timed with various anniversaries including the Supreme People’s Assembly,” said Hwang, acting leader since former president Park Geun-hye was removed amid a graft scandal.

Trump said in a Tweet a trade deal between China and the United States would be “far better for them if they solved the North Korea problem”.

“If China decides to help, that would be great,” he said. “If not, we will solve the problem without them!”

Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met in Florida last week and Trump pressed Xi to do more to rein in North Korea.

The North convened a Supreme People’s Assembly session on Tuesday, one of its twice-yearly sessions in which major appointments are announced and national policy goals are formally approved. It did not immediately release details.

But South Korean officials took pains to quell talk in social media of an impending security crisis or outbreak of war.

“We’d like to ask precaution so as not to get blinded by exaggerated assessment about the security situation on the Korean peninsula,” Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun said.

Saturday is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding father and grandfather of current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

A military parade is expected in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, to mark the day. North Korea often also marks important anniversaries with tests of its nuclear or missile capabilities in breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Men and women in colourful outfits were singing and dancing on the streets of Pyongyang, illuminated by better lighting than that seen in previous years, apparently practising for the parade planned.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message of congratulations to mark the event, lambasting “big powers” for their “expansionist” policy.

“The friendly two countries are celebrating this anniversary and, at the same time, conducting a war against big powers’ wild ambition to subject all countries to their expansionist and dominationist policy and deprive them of their rights to self-determination,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted the message as saying.

The North’s foreign ministry, in a statement carried by KCNA, said the U.S. navy strike group’s approach showed America’s “reckless moves for invading had reached a serious phase”.

“We never beg for peace but we will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms and keep to the road chosen by ourselves,” an unidentified ministry spokesman said.

North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.

RUSSIAN WORRIES

North Korea is emerging as one of the most pressing foreign policy problems facing the Trump administration.

The North has conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

The Trump administration is reviewing its policy towards North Korea and has said all options are on the table, including military strikes, but U.S. officials said non-military action appeared to be at the top of the list.

Russia’s foreign ministry, in a statement ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said it was concerned about many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, particularly on North Korea.

“We are really worried about what Washington has in mind for North Korea after it hinted at the possibility of a unilateral military scenario,” the ministry said.

“It’s important to understand how that would tally with collective obligations on de-nuclearising the Korean peninsula, something that is underpinned in U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Russia condemned U.S. cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base on Friday, calling them an illegal attack on a sovereign state.

The U.S. Navy strike group Carl Vinson was diverted from port calls to Australia and would move towards the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula as a show of force, a U.S. official told Reuters on the weekend.

U.S. officials said the strike group would take more than a week to reach waters near the Korean peninsula.

China and South Korea agreed on Monday to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea if it carried out nuclear or long-range missile tests, a senior official in Seoul said.

On Tuesday, a fleet of North Korean cargo ships was heading home, most of the vessels fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return the coal to curb the trade, sources with direct knowledge of the trade said.

The order was given on April 7, just as Trump and Xi were set for the summit where they agreed the North Korean nuclear advances had reached a “very serious stage”, Tillerson said.

Following repeated missile tests that drew international criticism, China banned all imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off the country’s most important export product.

The North is seen ready to conduct its sixth nuclear test at any time, with movements detected by satellite at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul, Idrees Ali in Washington and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Japan plans to send largest warship to South China Sea

FILE PHOTO: A helicopter lands on the Izumo, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force's (JMSDF) helicopter carrier, at JMSDF Yokosuka base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan,

By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, three sources said, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.

China claims almost all the disputed waters and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West, with the United States holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

The Izumo helicopter carrier, commissioned only two years ago, will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.

It will return to Japan in August, the sources said.

“The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission,” said one of the sources who have knowledge of the plan. “It will train with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea,” he added, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

A spokesman for Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force declined to comment.

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim parts of the sea which has rich fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits and through which around $5 trillion of global sea-borne trade passes each year.

Japan does not have any claim to the waters, but has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea.

Japan wants to invite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pushed ties with China in recent months as he has criticized the old alliance with the United States, to visit the Izumo when it visits Subic Bay, about 100 km (62 miles) west of Manila, another of the sources said.

Asked during a news conference about his view on the warship visit, Duterte said, without elaborating, “I have invited all of them.”

He added: “It is international passage, the South China Sea is not our territory, but it is part of our entitlement.”

On whether he would visit the warship at Subic Bay, Duterte said: “If I have time.”

Japan’s flag-flying operation comes as the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be taking a tougher line with China. Washington has criticized China’s construction of man-made islands and a build-up of military facilities that it worries could be used to restrict free movement.

Beijing in January said it had “irrefutable” sovereignty over the disputed islands after the White House vowed to defend “international territories”.

The 249 meter-long (816.93 ft) Izumo is as large as Japan’s World War Two-era carriers and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by U.S. Marines, but lacks their well deck for launching landing craft and other vessels.

Japan in recent years, particularly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been stretching the limits of its post-war, pacifist constitution. It has designated the Izumo as a destroyer because the constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons. The vessel, nonetheless, allows Japan to project military power well beyond its territory.

Based in Yokosuka, near to Tokyo, which is also home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s carrier, the Ronald Reagan, the Izumo’s primary mission is anti-submarine warfare.

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Manila; Editing by Nick Macfie)

China wraps up exercise with three warships in South China Sea

Chinese vessels in South China Sea

BEIJING (Reuters) – Three Chinese warships on Friday wrapped up a week of scheduled training exercises in the South China Sea, state media said, shortly after China’s sole aircraft carrier tested its weapons in the disputed region.

The flotilla of warships, including a destroyer that can launch guided missiles, had been conducting drills since Friday last week and were now sailing to the eastern India Ocean and the Western Pacific, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Exercises by the Chinese ships, in particular the aircraft carrier Liaoning, in recent months have unnerved its neighbors, especially given long-running territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The training included sudden attack drills and had been carried out successfully in poor sea conditions, Xinhua said.

The drills were “without an arranged script” and “as close as possible to real combat”, military affairs expert Yin Zhuo told the state broadcaster China Central Television.

Regular exercises by the Chinese navy in the high seas were an “unchangeable trend”, Yin said, though he added that China’s long-range naval capabilities were not sufficient to secure its interests in open waters. He did not elaborate.

China on Wednesday warned the United States against challenging its sovereignty in the South China Sea after reports that the United States was planning fresh naval patrols in the region.

The United States has criticized China’s construction of man-made islands and its build-up of military facilities in the sea, and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free movement. The U.S. navy has conducted several “freedom of navigation” patrols through the waters.

China claims most of the South China Sea, while Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claim a portion of the waters that command strategic sea lanes and have rich fishing grounds as well as with oil and gas deposits.

China says it is committed to freedom of navigation through the waters.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Taiwan scrambles jets, navy as China aircraft carrier enters Taiwan Strait

China carrier

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan scrambled jets and navy ships on Wednesday as a group of Chinese warships, led by its sole aircraft carrier, sailed through the Taiwan Strait, the latest sign of heightened tension between Beijing and the self-ruled island.

China’s Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier, returning from exercises in the South China Sea, was not encroaching in Taiwan’s territorial waters but entered its air defense identification zone in the southwest, Taiwan’s defense ministry said.

As a result, Taiwan scrambled jets and navy ships to “surveil and control” the passage of the Chinese ships north through the body of water separating Taiwan and China, Taiwan defense ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi said.

Taiwan military aircraft and ships have been deployed to follow the carrier group, which is sailing up the west side of the median line of the strait, he said.

Taiwan’s top policymaker for China affairs urged Beijing to resume dialogue, after official communication channels were suspended by Beijing from June.

“I want to emphasize our government has sufficient capability to protect our national security. It’s not necessary to overly panic,” said Chang Hsiao-yueh, minister for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, during a news briefing in response to reporters’ questions on the Liaoning.

“On the other hand, any threats would not benefit cross-Strait ties,” she said.

China has said the Liaoning was on an exercise to test weapons and equipment in the disputed South China Sea and its movements complied with international law.

On the weekend, a Chinese bomber flew around the Spratly Islands in a show of “strategic force”, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The latest Chinese exercises have unnerved Beijing’s neighbors, especially Taiwan which Beijing claims as its own, given long-running territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China’s ships “couldn’t always remain in port” and the navy had to hone its capabilities.

“The Taiwan Strait is an international waterway shared between the mainland and Taiwan. So, it is normal for the Liaoning to go back and forth through the Taiwan Strait in the course of training, and it won’t have any impact on cross-Strait relations,” Liu said at a briefing on Asia-Pacific security.

China claims most of the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

China distrusts Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and has stepped up pressure on her after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump broke years of diplomatic protocol and took a congratulatory call last month from her.

Trump then riled China by casting doubt on the “one China” policy that Beijing regards as the basis of U.S.-Chinese relations.

Tsai drew anger from China again when she met senior U.S. Republican lawmakers in Houston on Sunday en route to Central America, in a transit stop that Beijing had asked the United States to not allow.

Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for the island’s formal independence, a red line for the mainland, which has never renounced the use of force to bring what it deems a renegade province under its control.

Tsai says she wants to maintain peace with China.

(Reporting by J.R. Wu and Faith Hung; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

China says aircraft carrier testing weapons in South China Sea drills

Chinese aircraft carrier in South China Sea

BEIJING (Reuters) – A group of Chinese warships led by its sole aircraft carrier is testing weapons and equipment in exercises this week in the South China Sea that are going to plan, China’s foreign ministry said Wednesday.

Exercises by the ships, in particular the aircraft carrier Liaoning, since last month have unnerved China’s neighbors, especially at a time of heightened strain with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, and given long-running territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China says the Soviet-built Liaoning and the other ships conduct routine exercises that comply with international law.

“The Liaoning aircraft carrier group in the South China Sea is carrying out scientific research and training, in accordance with plans,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing.

“The purpose is to test the performance of weapons and equipment,” he said.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy said on its official microblog this week that the aircraft carrier conducted drills in the South China Sea with its fighter jets and helicopters.

U.S. warships have also been conducting what they call “freedom of navigation” patrols through the South China Sea over the past year as concern grows about Chinese construction of air strips and docks on disputed reefs and islands.

The group of warships sailed through waters south of Japan and then rounded east and south of Taiwan late last month on their way to the south China province of Hainan.

Taiwan’s defence minister warned at the time that “the threat of our enemies is growing day by day”.

Taiwan media have reported that the Liaoning could sail north up the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the narrow body of water separating Taiwan and China, on its way to its home port of Qingdao.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said the talk about the timing and northward route of the Liaoning was speculation, and it would make preparations based on the situation and “maintain its grasp of the movements” of the ship.

Business relations between mainland China and Taiwan have grown significantly over the past decade but tension has increased since the island elected a president from an independence-leaning party last year.

China distrusts President Tsai Ing-wen and has stepped up pressure on her following a protocol-breaking phone call between her and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump last month.

Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for the island’s formal independence, a red line for the mainland, which has never renounced the use of force to bring what it deems a renegade province under its control.

Tsai says she wants to maintain peace with China.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by J.R. Wu in Taipei)