US condemns Chinese military aircraft incursion over Taiwan as tension rises

Relations between Beijing and Joe Biden’s administration are off to a difficult start

Members of Taiwan's armed forces wear protective masks during a military exercise in Hukou, Hsinchu County, Taiwan, on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. China's state-run media called for retaliation after the Trump administration removed decades-old restrictions on interactions with Taiwan officials just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, one of its biggest moves yet to reshape U.S. ties with the Asian democracy. Photographer: I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg
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The US has reaffirmed support for Taiwan after China sent warplanes near the island in an apparent attempt to intimidate its government and test American resolve.

The State Department on Saturday said it “notes with concern the pattern of ongoing [Chinese] attempts to intimidate its neighbours, including Taiwan”.

“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” spokesman Ned Price said in the statement.

Washington will continue to deepen ties with Taiwan and ensure its defence from Chinese threats, while supporting a peaceful resolution of issues between the sides, the statement said.

There was no immediate Chinese response on Sunday.

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said that on Saturday China sent eight bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons and four fighter jets into airspace south-west of the island, part of a long-standing pattern of Chinese incursions aimed at pressuring the government of President Tsai Ing-wen into caving to Beijing’s demand that she recognise Taiwan as a part of Chinese territory.

The latest Chinese overflight came on the heels of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, emphasising the island’s enduring position in the panoply of divisive issues between the sides that also include human rights, trade disputes and, most recently, questions about China’s initial response to the pandemic.

Mr Biden’s administration has shown little sign of reducing pressure on China over such issues, although it is seen as favouring a return to more civil dialogue. In another sign of support for Taiwan, the island’s de facto ambassador to Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, was a guest at Mr Biden’s inauguration.

And in a final swipe at China, the Trump administration’s outgoing UN ambassador tweeted that it’s time for the world to oppose China’s efforts to exclude and isolate Taiwan, drawing sharp criticism from Beijing.

Ambassador Kelly Craft accompanied the tweet with a photo of herself in the UN General Assembly Hall, where the island is banned. She carried a handbag with a stuffed Taiwan bear sticking out of the top, a gift from Taiwan’s representative in New York, Ambassador James Lee.

Taiwan and China separated amid civil war in 1949 and China says it is determined to bring the island under its control by force if necessary. The US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but is legally required to ensure Taiwan can defend itself and the self-governing democratic island enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington.

President Tsai has sought to bolster the island’s defences with the purchase of billions of dollars in US weapons, including upgraded F-16 fighter jets, armed drones, rocket systems and Harpoon missiles capable of hitting both ships and land targets. She has also boosted support for Taiwan’s indigenous arms industry, including launching a programme to build new submarines to counter China’s growing naval capabilities.

China’s increased threats come as economic and political enticements bear little fruit, leading it to send fighter jets and reconnaissance planes on an almost daily basis toward the island of 24 million people, which lies 160 kilometres off China’s southeast coast across the Taiwan Strait.