China said on Friday it is conducting military exercises near the Taiwan Strait, as the most senior official from the United States’ State Department to visit Taiwan in 40 years prepared to meet the island’s president.
Defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told reporters the live-fire drills were in response to the “current situation” and designed to safeguard China’s “national sovereignty”.
Beijing 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. Last week, it held two days of mass air and sea drills.
Keith Krach, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, arrived on the self-ruled island on Thursday and is due to attend a dinner with President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday evening. He will also go to a memorial service for Taiwan’s former president Lee Teng-hui on Saturday.
Ren gave few more details about the drills, which he said began in the Taiwan Strait on Friday and involved the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command.
“They are a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ren said, adding that Taiwan was an internal Chinese affair.
“Recently the United States and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities have stepped up their collusion, frequently creating disturbances,” Ren said, referring to Taiwan’s ruling party.
When US Health Secretary Alex Azar visited the island last month, Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait.
Krach’s visit 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 intensified since Tsai first won office in 2016. She was returned for a second term in a landslide election in January.
Announcing the trip, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the visit was to “honour President Lee’s legacy” and stressed “shared political and economic values”.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Krach, who is accompanied by assistant secretary Robert Destro, would also discuss “how to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation” during his three-day visit.
It described him as the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei.
The United States, like most countries, only has official diplomatic ties with China, but it is Taiwan’s main arms supplier and most important international backer.
In prepared testimony for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, David Stilwell said the United States was not asking other countries to choose sides, but to stand up against China’s “malign” behaviour and to protect their own sovereignty and economic interests.
At the same time, Stilwell said US competition with China need not lead to conflict, and that the US sought to cooperate with Beijing where interests aligned, for instance on North Korea.
Stilwell said in the past several months there had been “particularly egregious examples of Beijing’s conduct”.
These included violence on its border with India and “aggressive” moves in the South China Sea, around Taiwan, and in waters China disputes with Japan.
SOURCE: News Agencies