China claims the democratically-ruled island as its own and says that combat drills are to defend its ‘sovereignty’

Taiwan has said it had to scramble fighter jets to trace approaching Chinese aircraft that also crossed the sensitive mid-line of the Taiwan Strait, escalating tensions in the wake of the most senior official from the United States’ State Department landing in Taiwan in 40 years prepared to join the island’s president.

It came after China’s defence ministry said earlier on Friday that it is 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”.

China 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. It also held two days of mass air and sea drills last week.

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 while mentioning Taiwan’s air force.

Taiwan’s defence 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 either side avoid passing through.

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

Keith Krach, under the secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, arrived on the self-ruled island on Thursday and is to attend a dinner with President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday evening. He will also attend 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 at the Taiwan Strait on Friday and involved the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command.

PLA’s Eastern Theater Command conducts a live-fire drill in the Taiwan Strait beginning from Friday, Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Ren Guoqiang said Fri, adding that the action is necessary to safeguard national sovereignty in the light of the current situation in the region.

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

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

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

The visit of Keith Krach was swiftly condemned by China, which baulks at any recognition of Taiwan and has mounted a decades-long policy designed to marginalise the island on the diplomatic stage, which has further intensified since Tsai first victory in 2016. She was returned for a second term in a landslide election in January.

While announcing the trip, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that the visit was to “honour President Lee’s legacy” and stressed, “shared political and economic values”.

The Foreign Ministry of Taiwan said that assistant secretary Robert Destro who is accompanied by Mr.Krach would also discuss “how to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation” during his three-day visit.

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