Taiwan has protested what it called a “reckless” and “provocative” flight by two Chinese fighter jets across the so-called median line of the Taiwan Strait, the country said late Sunday.
“At 11 a.m., March 31, 2 PLAAF J-11 jets violated the long-held tacit agreement by crossing the median line of the #Taiwan Strait,” the official Twitter account of the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said in a tweet. “It was an intentional, reckless & provocative action. We’ve informed regional partners & condemn #China for such behavior.”
PLAAF is the acronym for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
In the extremely rare flight, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said that the Chinese warplanes had crossed into its airspace and that it had scrambled fighters in response. Local media reports said the incident had triggered a 10-minute standoff between the Taiwanese and Chinese warplanes.
The 180-km-wide Taiwan Strait separates mainland China from self-governed and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.
The flight was rare in that Beijing and Taipei have generally respected the median line in the Taiwan Strait, usually keeping their warplanes and ships from crossing it.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, called the flight “unusual,” but noted that Chinese fighter jets had frequently crossed the median line in the mid- to late-1990s.
However, Glaser said that the Chinese “haven’t done so for at least a decade, likely longer.”
“I’ve been told that Chinese jets approach the midline, but then veer off,” she said.
The flight came just after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen capped off a tour of several Pacific nations with a visit last week to Hawaii, where she said she had formally submitted new requests to the United States for F-16B fighter jets.
The U.S. has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help it defend itself and is the island’s main source of arms. The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taipei more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.
China is suspicious of Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and any push for the island’s formal independence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said in January that Beijing reserves the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”
Beijing has called Taiwan “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations” and has bolstered its military presence near the island, sailing its sole operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and March of last year and holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises and bomber training throughout 2018.
In an editorial published late Sunday, the state-run China Daily newspaper criticized Tsai, saying that she “clearly intends to keep the U.S. tied to her bandwagon of ‘Taiwan independence,’ ” adding that “if Tsai continues to blindly pursue the course she has been taking and gives a cold shoulder to public will, she will pay a dear political price sooner or later.”
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency noted in a report released in January that China continues to undertake ambitious steps to modernize and better equip its military — steps that are driven primarily by “Beijing’s long-standing interest to eventually compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland and deter any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence.”
“Beijing’s anticipation that foreign forces would intervene in a Taiwan scenario led the (People’s Liberation Army) to develop a range of systems to deter and deny foreign regional force projection,” the report added.
Sunday’s move also comes less than a week after the U.S. sent ships through the strait — the third time in as many months — amid Washington’s ramped-up naval activities in the waterway.
Observers have said that those sailings have likely been interpreted by China as implicit support for self-ruled Taiwan.
The most recent saw the U.S. send the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Curtis Wilbur destroyer and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf through the strait on March 25 and 26. That mission was unusual, experts said, in that it was believed to be the first one involving a Coast Guard vessel.
Although the waterway is regarded as an international waterway, China has long been sensitive about the presence of U.S. military forces there.
That presence has grown since last year, with the most recent operation being the sixth known transit in about seven months. The U.S. Navy also sailed two ships through the strait in October and November — operations that were shadowed by multiple Chinese warships — and conducted a similar operation in July. Prior to that, the operations were believed to occur only about once a year.
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