China started a military exercise near the Taiwan Strait on Friday, in a new warning to the United States and pro-independence forces in Taiwan to coincide with a visit to the self-ruled island of a senior US diplomat.
Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a press conference on Friday morning that the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command would begin actual combat exercises near the strait “starting today”.
“This is a legitimate and necessary action taken in response to the current situation across the Taiwan Strait and the safeguarding of national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
While Ren did not provide details of the drills, Taiwan’s defence ministry said 18 Chinese aircraft were involved, the largest number ever reported by Taipei for such an encounter.
“Sep. 18, two H-6 bombers, eight J-16 fighters, four J-10 fighters and four J-11 fighters crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait and entered Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ,” it said on Twitter, using the short form for air defence identification zone. The island’s air force scrambled fighters and deployed its air defence missile system to monitor the activity, it said.
US undersecretary of state Keith Krach is expected to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday. He is the most senior state department official to visit the island in 41 years.
“Recently, the US and the Democratic Progressive Party authorities have stepped up their relationship and frequently caused incidents. No matter whether the aim is to counter China or raise the DPP’s status, it is wishful thinking and is destined to be a dead end,” Ren said.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has firm will, full confidence, and sufficient capabilities to thwart all external interference and separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
On the eve of Krach’s visit, two PLA warplanes approached Taiwan in yet another incursion, signalling growing mainland hostility towards the island.
The Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft briefly entered the southwest of the island’s air defence identification zone on Wednesday night and were warned off by Taiwan’s air force.
Krach is the second high-ranking US official to visit Taiwan this year. Earlier last month, Secretary of Health Alex Azar became the highest ranking American official to visit the island since 1979.
Eastern Theatre Command spokesman Zhang Chunhui said the recent naval and air force drills were aimed at exercising combat capabilities across the services.
“The relevant actions are necessary measures to deal with the current situation in the Taiwan Strait, and will help improve the Eastern Theatre Command to defend national unity and territorial sovereignty,” he said in a statement released by the defence ministry on Friday.
The command was “confident and determined” it would “defeat anyone and any force, in any form of planning and implementing pro-independence separatist activities”, it said.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Chinese state tabloid Global Times, said the exercise was aimed at clamping down on the “collusion” between the United States and Taiwan.
“That such a big operation can be mobilised in a short time is a strong signal that it’s not a simple exercise but more like a real combat action to tackle an emergent situation,” he said.
Zhu Songling, an expert on Taiwanese affairs at Beijing Union University, said the drills were a reaction to the strengthening relationship between Washington and Taipei.
US President Donald Trump labelled China a strategic competitor in late 2017, at a time when the two countries were imposing tit-for-tat tariffs against each other. Since then, relations between the two countries have plummeted as they clash on issues ranging from diplomacy to technology and the military.
In July, both China and the US conducted naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea, raising risks of military conflict in the disputed region.