Beijing’s top Taiwan affairs official hit out at the United States on Sunday for playing the “Taiwan card” amid heightened tensions over trade, a day after two US warships passed through the Taiwan Strait.

Mainland Chinese analysts said the move could be part of Washington’s broader efforts to contain Beijing.

Liu Jieyi, director of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office and China’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said the US had been using this “card” for some time with a clear purpose, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.

“We staunchly oppose any move that harms China’s national interest. We won’t accept that,” Liu was quoted as saying on the sidelines of a forum on cross-strait ties in Hangzhou. “The Taiwanese public should clearly understand the real purpose behind these US moves and not help them to play the ‘Taiwan card’.”

Captain Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet, said in a statement that two US Navy ships “conducted a routine transit through the international waters of the Taiwan Strait on July 7-8”.

“US Navy ships transit between the South China Sea and East China Sea via the Taiwan Strait and have done so for many years,” Brown said.

US sends two warships through Taiwan Strait amid heightened tensions with Beijing

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destroyers USS Mustin and USS Benfold carried out the passage.

Earlier on Saturday, Taiwan’s defence ministry said the ships were moving in a northeastern direction, adding that the situation was in accordance with regulations.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own and has never renounced the use of force to bring what it sees as a wayward province under its control. Taiwan has shown no interest in being governed by the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.

The move comes as a US-China trade fight is seen as dragging on for a potentially prolonged period, as the world’s two biggest economies flex their muscles with no sign of negotiations to ease tensions.

Beijing has stepped up diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan since pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen took office two years ago, as her government refuses to acknowledge that the self-ruled island is part of “one China”.

Taipei scrambles jets and navy as mainland China sends warships through Taiwan Strait

Mainland defence experts said sending the warships through the strait was a “serious”and “deliberate” provocation towards Beijing.

“This military provocation comes as trade tensions continue to rise, which could suggest that the US is using Taiwan as a threat to get China to consider backing down on trade issues,” said Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the US Navy move was part of a “comprehensive strategy against China”.

“So we will be seeing their provocative acts not only in trade but also in other areas, like security and culture,” Li said.

He added that it “sent the wrong signal to Tsai Ing-wen, and some pro-independence groups in Taiwan, which may incorrectly think they have strong US backing”.

Su Hao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, also said the move was part of a “systematic operation” by Washington to apply pressure on Beijing over both trade and security.

“This is highly adversarial behaviour and it treats China like an opponent in the region,” Su said. “The US sees China as a strategic opponent, and it’s even taken concrete action against it [on trade].”

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Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia under Barack Obama, said: “The US sending military ships through the Taiwan Strait is both a demonstration of its continuing support to Taiwan and of its willingness to exercise its maritime rights in China’s periphery.”

US overtures towards Taiwan, from unveiling a new de facto embassy to passing the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages US officials to visit, have further escalated tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

And as ties worsen between Beijing and Washington, it could work in Taipei’s favour, including strengthening the island’s relations with the US, Taiwan-based United Daily News reported, citing an anonymous source.

But Li Fei, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, disagreed.

“Taiwan will be in a more difficult situation as it is now facing pressure from both Beijing and Washington … and Beijing will continue to press Taiwan on its economy, military and politics.”

Reuters first reported last month that the United States was considering sending a warship and had examined plans for an aircraft carrier passage, but ultimately did not pursue that option perhaps because of concerns about upsetting China.

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The last time a US aircraft carrier transited the Taiwan Strait was in 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush, and some US military officials believe a carrier transit is overdue. Taiwanese media, including United Daily News, reported a US destroyer had entered the Taiwan Strait in July last year, shadowing mainland Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse

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