A group of American lawmakers visited Taiwan, arriving on a U.S. military plane, in a move likely to further inflame tensions between Washington and Beijing over the status of the self-governing island.
The trip was confirmed by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, who told reporters Tuesday that the congressional delegation was transported via military aircraft and said that’s “not uncommon” for such travel. Apple Daily in Taiwan reported earlier Tuesday that senators and House members flew on a U.S. Navy C-40A jet and landed at Taipei’s Songshan Airport at 6 p.m. local time.
Taiwan remains an irritant in U.S.-China relations, even as people familiar with the plans said that U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have scheduled a virtual summit next week in the effort to manage relations between the competing world powers.
China’s Defense Ministry issued a statement strongly condemning the congressional visit, which it said interfered in China’s internal affairs.
The People’s Liberation Army conducted joint operations in the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday, according to a statement from the Eastern Theater Command. The operations were in response to “the erroneous words and deeds of relevant countries on the Taiwan question and acts of the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” the statement said.
Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama were among six U.S. lawmakers on the flight, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday, citing two sources familiar with the trip. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry and the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei, declined to provide further details about the delegation and its itinerary.
China often conducts military flights into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone to signal its displeasure with U.S. actions regarding Taiwan. But following a recent thaw in relations between Beijing and Washington, China is likely to seek to balance domestic expectations that it will take a hard line against the U.S. without derailing next week’s summit.
Trips abroad by lawmakers during congressional breaks, like the one this week, are so common that the congressional delegations are nicknamed “codels.” But this visit follows actions by both Washington and Beijing that have intensified tensions over the democratically governed island of some 23 million people.
“Beijing will object to the landing of yet another U.S. military aircraft on Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Although the visit by U.S. congressmen to Taiwan is certainly not unusual, it comes against the background of a slew of pro-Taiwan and anti-China legislation, which the Chinese view as contributing to a hardening of U.S. policy toward China.”
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party newspaper, wrote on Twitter that the visit “was not announced in advance,” calling the lawmakers “as sneaky as rats.”
Members of Congress are pressing for more muscular U.S. support for Taiwan. In October, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced legislation endorsing Taiwan’s admission to the Inter-American Development Bank as a non-borrowing member, a step up from its current role as an observer.
In October, the Pentagon confirmed that the U.S. has had troops in Taiwan training local forces to better defend themselves in case of an attack by China. And China has ramped up military flights near the island, flying more than 200 planes into Taiwan’s ADIZ in October. In a sign of how heated the rhetoric over Taiwan has become, Chinese state media last week sought to tame online speculation over a possible war.
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