China conducts more exercises near Taiwan as US official visits

Taiwan has said it had to scramble fighter jets to track approaching Chinese aircraft that also crossed the sensitive mid-line of the Taiwan Strait, in an escalation of tensions as the most senior official from the United States’ State Department to visit Taiwan in 40 years prepared to meet the island’s president.

It came after China’s defence ministry said earlier on Friday it was conducting military exercises near the Taiwan Strait, adding that the drills were in response to the “current situation” and designed to safeguard China’s “national sovereignty”.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own and has been alarmed by the increasing willingness of the US to defy China’s attempts to isolate the democratically-ruled island. Last week, it held two days of mass air and sea drills.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said 18 Chinese aircraft were involved on Friday, a far larger number than Taiwan has previously announced for such encounters.

“ROCAF scrambled fighters, and deployed air defence missile system to monitor the activities,” it said in an English-language statement on Twitter., referring to Taiwan’s air force.

The ministry showed a map of the flight paths of the Chinese jets and their crossing of the Taiwan Strait mid-line, which normally combat aircraft from both sides avoid passing through.

Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper said Taiwan air force jets scrambled 17 times on Friday morning over four hours, warning China’s air force to stay away. It also showed a picture of missiles being loaded onto an F-16 at the Hualien air base on Taiwan’s east coast.

“There is intense military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait, ratcheting up tensions,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul in South Korea.

US official’s visit

Keith Krach, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, arrived on the self-ruled island on Thursday and is due to attend a dinner with President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday evening. He will also go to a memorial service for Taiwan’s former president Lee Teng-hui on Saturday.

Chinese Defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang gave few more details about the live-fire drills, which he said began in the Taiwan Strait on Friday and involved the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command.

“They are a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ren said, adding that Taiwan was an internal Chinese affair.

“Recently the United States and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities have stepped up their collusion, frequently creating disturbances,” Ren said, referring to Taiwan’s ruling party.

When US Health Secretary Alex Azar visited the island last month, Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait.

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