China sends dozens of warplanes near Taiwan after vice-president’s US stopover

China launched military drills around Taiwan on Saturday as a “stern warning” after voicing anger over a stopover in the United States by the island’s vice-president, William Lai.

Lai – the frontrunner in Taiwan’s presidential election next year and a vocal opponent of Beijing’s claims to the island – returned on Friday from a trip to Paraguay during which he stopped briefly in New York and San Francisco.

China has reacted angrily to the US stops, and on Saturday reiterated that Lai was a “troublemaker” while vowing to take “resolute measures … to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “launched joint air and sea patrols and military exercises of the navy and air force around the island of Taiwan” on Saturday, state media outlet Xinhua quoted military spokesperson Shi Yi as saying.

Taiwan said 42 warplanes had entered its air defence zone since 9am local time (0100 GMT), and that eight Chinese vessels had also cooperated in the exercises. Twenty-six of the warplanes involved crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the island’s ministry of defence said in a statement.

Xinhua said the drills were meant to test the PLA’s ability “to seize control of air and sea spaces” and fight “in real combat conditions”.

They were also intended to serve as “a stern warning to the collusion of Taiwan independence separatists with foreign elements and their provocations”, it added.

Taiwan said it strongly condemned “such irrational and provocative behaviour” and that it would dispatch “appropriate forces” to respond “with practical actions”.

“Conducting a military exercise this time under a pretext not only does not help the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but also highlights [China’s] militaristic mentality and confirms the hegemonic nature of its military expansion,” Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence said in a statement.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has pledged to take it one day, by force if necessary.

However, Sifu Ou, an expert with Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told AFP he thought “the scale of PLA exercise [this time] will be moderate”.

Past military exercises China has launched around Taiwan during an election year have been seen as favourable to candidates from Lai’s ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP), which is largely regarded as pro-Washington.

The US had called for calm over Lai’s visit, which it described as routine travel.

Lai stopped in New York and returned via San Francisco en route to and from Paraguay, one of the dwindling number of nations that diplomatically recognise Taipei.

But on Saturday, an official from the Communist party’s Taiwan Work Office “strongly condemned” Lai’s trip, calling it a “new provocative move” by the DPP, “to further collude with the United States”, Xinhua said.

“Lai’s latest ‘stopover’ … was a disguise he used to sell out the interests of Taiwan in order to seek gains in the local election through dishonest moves,” the official was quoted as saying.

“Lai’s deeds have proven that he is an out-and-out troublemaker who will push Taiwan to the dangerous brink of war and bring deep troubles to Taiwan compatriots”, the readout continued.

At a lunch in New York during the trip, Lai vowed “to resist annexation” and continue to uphold the core tenets of Tsai’s administration.

Lai has previously been far more outspoken about independence than Tsai, to whom Beijing is already hostile as she refuses to accept its view that Taiwan is a part of China.

The Harvard-educated doctor-turned-politician has previously described himself as a “pragmatic Taiwan independence worker”. But since becoming the presidential candidate he has appeared more cautious and tempered in his statements.

At a summit on Friday, the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea said they opposed China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour” asserting maritime claims in the Indo-Pacific region.

“We reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community,” it said.

“There is no change in our basic positions on Taiwan, and we call for a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues,” it said.


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