Chinese jets buzz Taiwan over US diplomat's visit

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Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (left) takes a selfie with US Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach in Taipei, on Sept 18, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI - A top US diplomat's visit to Taiwan was marked by more than a dozen Chinese military jets flying into the island's air space Friday (Sept 18) to signal Beijing's displeasure, prompting Taipei to scramble its own fighter planes in response.

US Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, who arrived in Taipei on Thursday for a three-day trip, is the most senior State Department official to visit the Chinese-claimed island in four decades.

Taiwan fighter jets took to the skies as 18 Chinese aircraft buzzed the island, crossing the sensitive mid-line of the Taiwan Strait. Authorities said there were far more aircraft involved on Friday than in previous such encounters.

Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said Beijing was "holding actual combat exercises near the Taiwan Strait" in response to Mr Krach's visit. He referred to the military drills as "a legitimate and necessary action the mainland has taken to protect its sovereignty and integrity", Chinese state-backed tabloid Global Times reported.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Global Times editor Hu Xijin posted on Weibo that the maritime and aerial drills were part of preparations for an attack on Taiwan if the need arose. He added that the military exercises were valuable experience and gathered intelligence about Taiwan's defence systems.

Taiwan's presidential office urged China to exercise restraint. "These military intimidations have caused resentment among the Taiwanese people," it said.

Mr Krach met with President Tsai Ing-wen and other senior officials Friday, and will attend the late former President Lee Teng-hui's memorial service on Saturday.

The US diplomat "communicated the US government's consistent stance in supporting democratic Taiwan", Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"Taiwan is a close partner of the US in the Indo-Pacific region and will continue furthering this partnership under the foundation of mutual trust and mutual benefit."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has led the Trump administration's rhetorical offensive against China, accused Beijing of bluster when asked about the Chinese activity.

"We sent the delegation to a funeral, and the Chinese have apparently responded by military blustering. I'll leave it at that," he told a news conference on a visit to Guyana.

Both the United States and Taiwan had kept mum on Mr Krach's visit until US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus tweeted early on Thursday that he was on his way to the island.

Beijing lodged a complaint with Washington over the visit on Thursday, saying that it would soon make a "necessary response".

Mr Krach is the second US official to visit Taiwan in as many months, after US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar's trip to Taipei on Aug 10.

On Mr Azar's visit, during which he met with President Tsai, Chinese fighter jets also briefly crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait as Beijing expressed displeasure.

Sino-US relations are at their lowest point in decades, and tensions over Taiwan, on top of other issues, including the coronavirus, cyber security and trade, have worsened ties in recent months.

In a move set to further escalate matters, the Trump administration is pushing the sale of seven large packages of weapons to Taiwan, according to officials familiar with the proposals.

The weapons include long-range missiles that would allow Taiwanese jets to hit distant Chinese targets in the event of a conflict, the New York Times reported sources as saying.

If approved by the US Congress, the packages, valued in the billions, would be one of Washington's largest weapons transfers to Taiwan in recent years. The administration plans to informally notify lawmakers of the sales within weeks, according to media reports.

The proposed sales come as US President Donald Trump and his campaign strategists try to paint him as getting tough on China in the run-up to the election in November.

Some Trump officials see bolstering relations with Taiwan as an important part of creating a broader military counterweight to China's growing influence in Asia.

Meanwhile, China has accused Taiwan intelligence agencies of targeting mainland students on the island. The accusations, first made on Sept 12 by state broadcaster China Central Television, have now been reported by at least six other Chinese news outlets.

The reports cited cases from as far back as 2011 and said that in addition to students, a hotel employee and a driver for a travel agency had been also targeted for information.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council blasted China's accusations as hypocritical. "Aside from strengthening its internal control requirements, China has also continually extended espionage activities beyond its borders," it said.

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