Chinese bombers and fighter jets have entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone for the second day in a row in an unusual and provocative escalation of its military activities that has prompted the Joe Biden administration’s first public remarks on its relationship with Taipei.
Fifteen Chinese aircraft entered the Taiwanese defence zone on Sunday, Taiwan said, a day after 12 war planes including eight nuclear-capable H-6K bombers entered the airspace between mainland Taiwan and the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea.
China views democratically ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province, and has been ratcheting up military activity on the island in recent weeks as the outgoing Donald Trump administration approved a slew of weapons deals with Taipei and relaxed longstanding restrictions on interaction with Taiwanese officials.
President Biden’s newly sworn-in administration on Saturday reaffirmed the US’s “rock-solid” commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself in its first comments on the sensitive territorial dispute, noting “with concern the pattern of [China’s] ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbours, including Taiwan”.
“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in the statement.
Washington would continue to deepen ties with Taiwan and ensure its defence from Chinese threats, while supporting a peaceful resolution of issues between the sides, the statement added.
The latest Chinese overflight came on the heels of Biden’s inauguration, emphasising the island’s enduring position in the panoply of divisive issues between the sides that also include human rights, trade disputes and, most recently, questions about China’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s administration has shown little sign of reducing pressure on China, although it is seen as favouring a return to more civil dialogue. In another sign of support for Taiwan, the island’s de-facto ambassador to Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, was an invited guest at Biden’s inauguration.
And in a final swipe at China, the Trump administration’s outgoing UN ambassador tweeted that it’s time for the world to oppose China’s efforts to exclude and isolate Taiwan, drawing sharp criticism from Beijing.
Ambassador Kelly Craft accompanied the tweet with a photo of herself in the UN general assembly hall, from where the island is banned. She carried a handbag with a stuffed Taiwan bear sticking out of the top, a gift from Taiwan’s representative in New York, James Lee.
There was no immediate Chinese response on Sunday and it has issued no comment about either of the weekend’s air missions. The overflights mark an escalation from similar flights in recent weeks that have generally involved one or two reconnaissance aircraft rather than several combat planes.
Taiwan’s air force was sent up to respond to Sunday’s sorties, which involved six J-10 fighters, four J-16s, two SU-30s, a Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft and two Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, the country’s defence ministry said.
“Airborne alert sorties had been tasked, radio warnings issued and air defence missile systems deployed to monitor the activity,” the ministry said.
China has previously said such actions are aimed at defending the country’s sovereignty and designed to act as a warning against “collusion” between the United States and Taiwan.
A map provided by Taiwan’s defence ministry showed that the Chinese aircraft flew over the same waters where the most recent Chinese missions have been taking place near the Pratas Islands, though still well away from mainland Taiwan.
Earlier on Sunday, the US military said that a US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt had entered the disputed South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas”.
Beijing has watched with growing concern increasing US support for democratic Taiwan, especially during Trump’s administration which left office on Wednesday.
Last year, during visits by senior US officials to Taipei, Chinese aircraft briefly crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which normally serves as an unofficial buffer.
Taiwan and China separated amid civil war in 1949 and China says it is determined to bring the island under its control by force if necessary. The US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but is legally required to ensure Taiwan can defend itself and the self-governing democratic island enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has sought to bolster the island’s defences with the purchase of billions of dollars in US weapons, including upgraded F-16 fighter jets, armed drones, rocket systems and Harpoon missiles capable of hitting both ships and land targets. She has also boosted support for Taiwan’s indigenous arms industry, including launching a programme to build new submarines to counter China’s ever-growing naval capabilities.
China’s increased threats come as economic and political enticements bear little fruit, leading it to stage war games and dispatch fighter jets and reconnaissance planes on an almost daily basis toward the island of 24 million people, which lies 100 miles (160km) off China’s south-east coast across the Taiwan Strait.