Chinese jets buzz into Taiwan airspace as top US official visits

Move to signal Beijing's displeasure prompts Taipei to fly its own fighter planes in response

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Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and US Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach taking a wefie outside the Taipei Guest House in Taipei yesterday. Mr Krach, who arrived on Thursday for a three-day trip, is the most senior US State Department official to visit the island in four decades. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A top United States diplomat's visit to Taiwan was marked by more than a dozen Chinese military jets flying into the island's airspace yesterday to signal Beijing's displeasure, which prompted 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.

The Taiwanese authorities said there were far more aircraft involved yesterday 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 yesterday.

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

Trying to "use Taiwan to control China" or "rely on foreigners to build up oneself" was wishful thinking and futile, Mr Ren said, warning that "those who play with fire will get burnt".

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 a 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 President Tsai Ing-wen and other senior officials yesterday, and will attend former president Lee Teng-hui's memorial service today.

Asked about the heightened Chinese activity during the diplomat's visit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dismissive.

"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, South America.

Ms Tsai's office issued a statement yesterday, which said: "The President believes that by welcoming old and new friends of Taiwan with the heartwarming banquet tonight, Taiwan is expressing its determination in taking a key step to establish a new milestone in deepening Taiwan-US collaborations. (We) hope that through future collaboration and dialogue, Taiwan-US relations can keep developing, leading to a friendlier and closer partnership."

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said in a separate statement that "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".

Both the US and Taiwan had kept mum on Mr Krach's visit until State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus tweeted early on Thursday that the official 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 Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar's trip to Taipei on Aug 10.

On Mr Azar's visit, during which he met Ms Tsai, Chinese fighter jets also briefly crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait.

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.

The proposed sale comes 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.

Meanwhile, China has accused Taiwanese intelligence agencies of targeting mainland students on the island. The accusations, first made last Saturday 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 also been targeted for information.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council blasted China's accusations as hypocritical.

• Additional reporting by Reuters, New York Times

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2020, with the headline Chinese jets buzz into Taiwan airspace as top US official visits. Subscribe