A U.S. Navy destroyer was followed by a Chinese warship and several armed fishing boats as it asserted navigational rights in the South China Sea last week, according to a newly released satellite image. The satellite photo captured American and Chinese ships operating near Taiwan-held Itu Aba on November 3, 2023. The presence of Chinese ships near the island suggested an attempt by China to assert sovereignty over it and by extension democratically governed Taiwan, which it claims as part of its territory.
The Navy’s freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) caused a stir in Taipei by challenging restrictions on innocent passage. The operation took place in the disputed Spratly Islands, but the Navy did not name the specific location. The U.S. Seventh Fleet did not comment on the nature of any interactions between the American and Chinese vessels.
Itu Aba, also known as Taiping Island, is the largest naturally occurring feature in the Spratly Islands. It is located southwest of Taiwan. While Taiwan’s defense preparations mainly focus on the Communist Party’s designs on Taiwan proper, the potential capture of outlying Taiwanese islands has long been a concern. Taiwan maintains runways and ports on Itu Aba and Pratas Island but does not engage in island-building and militarization like China.
Taiwan’s spy chief rejected a renewed call to station marines on Itu Aba, citing the need for a careful assessment of the regional situation. The Taiwanese Coast Guard personnel stationed on Itu Aba will resume patrols to the island in the near future. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry did not comment on the situation. The South China Sea continues to be a contentious region with ongoing tensions between China and the United States.