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US and Taiwanese navies quietly held exercises in the Pacific in April, sources said

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TAIPEI >> The U.S. and Taiwanese navies conducted joint exercises in the Pacific in April that did not take place officially, four people briefed on the matter said, as the two militaries boost cooperation amid rising Chinese military threats.

Washington and Taipei have expanded their military cooperation in recent years, amid near-daily Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and exercises by Chinese forces near the island.

U.S. and Taiwan military involvement, including visits and training, is kept on the back burner and often not officially confirmed due to China’s objection to military contacts between Washington and Taipei. China claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, which the island strongly rejects.

The exercises, which were not publicized, took place last month in the western Pacific, according to the sources, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

One source said “multiple military assets” were involved. A second source said the exercises did not officially exist and were referred to as “unplanned encounters at sea,” pointing to a tacit agreement in which both sides claim the exercises were simply the result of chance encounters.

“It’s like I’m having dinner at this restaurant and you just happen to be here too,” the source says. “Then it seems as if I am only sharing the same table with someone.”

That source also said about a half-dozen naval vessels from both sides, including frigates and supply and support ships, took part in the days-long exercises, which were intended to practice “basic” operations such as communications, refueling and resupply.

Taiwan’s navy said in a statement to Reuters that in order to deal with unexpected scenarios at sea and to minimize “interference” with each other, the navy is “acting in accordance with the US-promoted Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea,” including known as CUES.

“The Navy often makes contact with ships from other countries and conducts encounter exercises when necessary,” the statement said, without elaborating.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

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Taiwan and the United States have no official diplomatic relations, as Washington formally recognizes Beijing but is obliged by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and is the island’s main international backer.

A third source said that while the two navies’ “unplanned meetings” mainly involved basic exercises, such exercises are critical to ensuring the two militaries can operate together in times of emergency.

The source added that the two navies also practiced various tactical maneuvers, including searching for underwater targets.

CUES was formulated about a decade ago to help de-escalate tensions between militaries at sea, providing guidelines such as safe speeds and distances, a common communication language and what actions to take if a ship becomes disabled.

China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its opposition to US-Taiwan military ties, urged the US to end its “wrongful acts” of military collusion with Taiwan, and warned Taiwanese authorities that the move to independence by force and resistance to “reunification” would fail.

China’s Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Taiwan’s navy chief Tang Hua visited the United States last month and discussed how to boost bilateral maritime cooperation, Reuters reported. In response, China’s Foreign Ministry said it firmly opposed “military collusion” between the United States and Taiwan.

This month, Taiwan’s Chief of the General Staff, Admiral Mei Chia-shu, attended the change of command ceremony for the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, which only came to light after he was spotted in the crowd in an official photo .

China has long said that Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue and is a major point of contention in China-US relations.

Beijing has not refrained from using force to bring Taiwan under its control, while Taipei says Chinese territorial claims are invalid because the People’s Republic of China has never ruled the island.