By Ben Blanchard
TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan’s air force scrambled armed fighters on Sunday to intercept Chinese jets that flew around the island claimed by Beijing as its own, in a move denounced by Taiwan’s Defence Ministry as a threat to regional peace and stability.
China has been flying what it calls “island encirclement” drills on-off since 2016 when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen first took office. Beijing believes Tsai, who won re-election last month, wishes to push the island’s formal independence.
Tsai says Taiwan is an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name.
In a statement, Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said Chinese J-11 fighters and H-6 bombers flew into the Bashi Channel to the south of Taiwan, then out into the Pacific before heading back to base via the Miyako Strait, located between Japan’s islands of Miyako and Okinawa, to the northeast of Taiwan.
“During this period, the national military appropriately used air reconnaissance aircraft and air defense forces in accordance with combat readiness regulations,” it said.
It provided a picture of a Taiwan air force F-16 shadowing one of the Chinese H-6 bombers. President Tsai later said that the F-16s had accompanied the Chinese aircraft throughout.
According to Taiwan’s official Central News Agency, the scrambled F-16s carried live missiles.
“The Chinese Communist’s long-range far-out-at-sea missions have impacted regional security and stability and endanger the peace and welfare shared by all parties in the region,” the ministry said.
The latest fly-by came as Taiwan’s vice-president elect, William Lai, was returning from a visit to Washington, where he attended the high-profile National Prayer Breakfast, at which U.S. President Donald Trump spoke.
China has denounced Lai’s trip.
China’s Eastern Theatre Command, in a statement late on Sunday carried by the official People’s Liberation Army Daily, said the aircraft carried out “real combat-oriented training”.
“Taiwan and its island are sacred and inalienable parts of China. The Chinese military’s combat ready patrol was a completely legitimate and necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and safeguarding national sovereignty,” according to the statement.
Relations between Taipei and Beijing have further plummeted in recent weeks following the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, with Taiwan accusing China of preventing the island from accessing full information from the World Health Organization (WHO) or attending its meetings.
China should focus on controlling the virus, Tsai said on Monday, rather than threatening Taiwan.
“I want to tell China that the most important thing is to quickly get the epidemic under control.”
Taiwan is not a WHO member due to China’s objections, which says the island is merely a Chinese province whose interests in the health body are adequately represented by Beijing.
But in one small diplomatic breakthrough for Taiwan, the WHO said Taiwanese experts will participate this week in an on-line meeting of experts about the virus.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said this was a “good start” and that they would strive to take part in more WHO events.
Taiwan’s WHO troubles last week became another flashpoint in Sino-U.S. ties, with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva telling the agency to deal directly with Taiwan’s government, drawing a sharp rebuke from China.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee; Editing by Neil Fullick and Himani Sarkar)