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China’s Newest Aircraft Carrier Transits Taiwan Strait

China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier leaves the pier at the Dalian shipyard on May 13, 2018. Xinhua Photo

China’s new aircraft carrier Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday, two weeks ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election.

Shandong is China’s second aircraft carrier and the first one built in China. The Taiwan Strait passage is the first for Shandong since it was commissioned earlier this month. Reuters first reported Shandong’s passage.

Before its commissioning, Shandong had previously steamed through the narrow body of water separating Taiwan from mainland China as it prepared to formally join the fleet, according to several media accounts, including a report in the Taiwan News.

Shandong launched in 2017, according to China’s Ministry of National Defense.

Shandong’s route through the Taiwan Strat comes as Taiwan gears up for a presidential election on Jan. 11th. President Tsai Ing-wen is vying for re-election and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party is pro-independence.

However, Tsai has stated she intends to maintain the status quo with China. Yet Tsai and her party are clear about how they view Taiwan as being separated from China’s leadership in Beijing.

“The world cannot and will not forget Taiwan because Taiwan is an important country,” says a campaign message on Tsai Ing-wen’s Twitter account.

The U.S. relationship with Taiwan is complicated. Officially, since 1979, the U.S. has “recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China,” according to the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. does not support Taiwan independence, but the U.S. government does maintain a strong “unofficial relations” with Taiwan, according to the State Department.

The U.S. Navy regularly sends ships through the Taiwan Strait but has not sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in more than a decade. Earlier this year, during a Pacific tour, former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson did not rule out such a carrier transit in the future, according to a report by Reuters.

Following his trip, Richardson reaffirmed during a Pentagon briefing his views on whether there are any restrictions on the type of ships the U.S. Navy could send through the Taiwan Strait.

“Those are international waters. So, any ship that can sail in international waters can sail through those waters,” Richardson said on January 31.