Taiwan has sent ships and aircraft to shadow a Chinese aircraft carrier group through the narrow Taiwan Strait, its Defense Ministry said Wednesday.
The move comes amid rising tensions between the two countries and just after Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has recently solidified his grip on power, warned that Beijing would defend by force if necessary its “One China” principle — under which the self-ruling island is seen as part of China’s own territory, awaiting reunification.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the carrier group, led by China’s sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, entered the waterway late Tuesday, but kept to its western side.
By midday Wednesday it has left Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, heading southwest, the ministry said on its website.
Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa had told lawmakers earlier Wednesday at the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee that the carrier had entered the waters after participating in drills in the East China Sea on Sunday and Monday, according to reports by Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Yen said his ministry was keeping a close watch on China’s drills in the area.
China’s Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.
The Liaoning was previously spotted near Taiwan on Jan. 16, when it entered Taiwan’s ADIZ and sailed just west of the Taiwan Strait’s median line.
Chinese warplanes conducted 25 drills around Taiwan between August 2016 and mid-December last year, according to Taipei.
A blistering nationalist speech by Xi on Tuesday — in which he issued some of his strongest words yet toward Taiwan — came on the heels of new U.S. rules, backed by U.S. President Donald Trump, that allow top-level American officials to travel to the self-ruled island.
Referring to Taiwan, Xi said the mainland would continue outreach to advance the cause of “peaceful unification” with the island, whose 23 million residents are strongly in favor of maintaining their de facto independent status.
The Chinese leader, whose speech concluded the two-week session of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, also took a tough line on the possibility of independence for Taiwan.
“Maintaining national sovereignty, territorial integrity and complete unification of the motherland is the common aspiration of all Chinese,” Xi said in Tuesday’s speech.
“In the face of national righteousness and the tide of history, all attempts or tricks aimed at dividing the motherland are doomed to failure,” he said. “All will receive the condemnation of the people and the punishment of history.”
China still sees Taiwan as its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war and have been ruled separately ever since.
China’s hostility toward Taiwan has grown since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in China, although Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Alex Wong — believed to be the highest level U.S. official to meet with Taiwanese representatives since the inking of new American travel rules — was set to speak alongside Tsai at a dinner with the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei on Wednesday, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Tuesday.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it had lodged an official protest with Washington over Wong’s visit.
“We urge the United States to abide by the ‘One China’ principle,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
She called on the U.S. to “stop any form of official exchanges and contacts with Taiwan, and prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues, so as to avoid serious damage to Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Information from AFP-JIJI added