© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen meets the U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S. April 5, 2023. REUTERS/David Swanson/File Photo
By Josh Arslan, Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard
FUZHOU, China/TAIPEI (Reuters) -Forty-two Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait on Saturday as China began drills around Taiwan in anger at President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The three-day drills, announced the day after Tsai returned from the United States, had been widely expected after China condemned her Wednesday meeting with Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles.
China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. Taiwan’s government strongly objects to China’s claims.
Beijing’s announcement also came just hours after China hosted a visit by senior European leaders.
The People’s Liberation Army said it had started the combat readiness patrols and “Joint Sword” exercises around Taiwan, having said earlier it would be holding them in the Taiwan Strait and to the north, south and east of Taiwan “as planned”.
“This is a serious warning to the Taiwan independence separatist forces and external forces’ collusion and provocation, and it is a necessary action to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese army’s Eastern Theater Command said in a statement.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday morning it spotted 42 Chinese fighters – J-10s, J-11s and J-16s, crossing the median line that normally serves as an unofficial batter between the two sides, as well as eight Chinese ships.
China was using Tsai’s U.S. visit “as an excuse to carry out military exercises, which has seriously damaged regional peace, stability and security”, the ministry said in a statement.
“The military will respond with a calm, rational and serious attitude, and will stand guard and monitor in accordance with the principles of ‘not escalating nor disputes’ to defend national sovereignty and national security.”
Chinese state media released what it said was footage of the drills, set to stirring martial music and showing warships at sea and fighter jets doing airborne refuelling. Reuters could not authenticate when or where the material was shot.
SITUATION ‘AS EXPECTED’
There was no broader sense of alarm in Taiwan about the drills, where people are long accustomed to Chinese threats.
China had threatened unspecified retaliation if the meeting with McCarthy – second in line to succeed the U.S. president, after the vice president – were to take place. Beijing staged war games around Taiwan, including live-fire missile launches, in August after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei.
A senior Taiwan official familiar with security planning in the region told Reuters the aircraft had only crossed the median line briefly, while the ships had already turned back, unlike in August when vessels from both navies engaged in stand-offs.
The situation was “as expected” and manageable, and Taiwan’s government has rehearsed various scenarios for its response, the person said on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Reuters reporters in a seaside area near Fuzhou, opposite the Taiwan-controlled Matsu islands, saw a Chinese warship firing shells onto a drill area on China’s coast, part of drills announced by China late on Friday.
Tsai, hosting a lunch on Saturday with a visiting U.S. lawmaker delegation, led by Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she looked forward to strengthening security cooperation with the United States.
“I would like to reiterate that the people of Taiwan love democracy and seek peace,” she said, without directly mentioning the drills in comments before television cameras.
Tsai has repeatedly offered talks with China but has been rebuffed as the government views her as a separatist. She says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary on Saturday that the government has “a strong ability to thwart any form of Taiwan independence secession”.
“All countermeasures taken by the Chinese government belong to China’s legitimate and legal right to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
DIPLOMACY AND DRILLS
Unlike in August, China has yet to announce whether it will also stage missile drills. When China announced the previous drills, it published a map showing which maritime areas near Taiwan it would be firing into.
The security source said April is when China typically carries out military exercises.
Taiwanese officials had expected a less severe reaction to the McCarthy meeting, given it took place in the United States, but they had said they could not rule out the possibility of China staging more drills.
China’s announcement came hours after French President Emmanuel Macron left China, where he met President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders. Macron urged Beijing to talk sense to Russia over the war in Ukraine.
European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen, also in China this week to meet Xi, said stability in the Taiwan Strait was of paramount importance.
Xi responded by saying that expecting China to compromise on Taiwan was “wishful thinking”, according to China’s official reading of the meeting.
China’s defence ministry, as well as carrying the announcement of the drills around Taiwan, showed pictures on its home page of Xi meeting Macron and von der Leyen.
The Taiwan security source said China’s recent efforts to charm foreign leaders were in vain after the announcement of the drills.
“Upon the announcement of drills in the strait, all those efforts have vanished overnight and become a wasted effort.”