Multiple Chinese military aircraft approached Taiwan for a second consecutive day on Saturday as the island’s leader, government officials and a senior United States envoy bid farewell to the late Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, dubbed “Mr Democracy” for ending autocratic rule in Taipei in favour of free elections.
The Taiwanese defence ministry said 19 Chinese aircraft were involved in Saturday’s exercises, one more than the previous day, with some crossing the sensitive Taiwan Strait midline and others flying into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone off its southwest coast.
It said China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, sent 12 J-16 fighters, two J-10 fighters, two J-11 fighters, two H-6 bombers and one Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft.
According to a map the ministry provided, none got close to mainland Taiwan itself or flew over it.
“ROCAF scrambled fighters, and deployed air defence missile system to monitor the activities,” the ministry said in a tweet, referring to the Republic of China Air Force, the formal name of Taiwan’s air force.
Taiwan’s defence ministry, in a separate statement, said China was carrying out provocative activities, seriously damaging peace and stability.
“The Defence Ministry sternly condemns this, and calls on the mainland authorities to control themselves and pull back from the edge.”
China had on Friday announced combat drills near the Taiwan Strait and denounced what it called collusion between the island and the US.
The US under secretary for economic affairs, Keith Krach, arrived in Taipei on Thursday for a three-day visit, the most senior State Department official to visit Taiwan in four decades.
‘One step closer’
China has condemned Krach’s visit multiple times.
“Every time a high-ranking US official visits Taiwan, the fighter jets of the PLA should be one step closer to the island,” said an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times on Friday.
“The US and Taiwan must not misjudge the situation, or believe the exercise is a bluff. Should they continue to make provocations, a war will inevitably break out.”
Krach is the second high-level official to visit Taiwan in two months, following the US health secretary, Alex Azar, in August. Washington’s increased outreach to Taiwan under US President Donald Trump has become yet another flashpoint with China as the countries clash over a range of trade and security issues, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike Azar, Krach held most of his meetings behind closed doors and kept a low profile at the service for Lee, who died in July at the age of 97. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori also attended.
Speaking at the memorial service in a chapel at a Taipei university, President Tsai Ing-wen said he had shaped the Taiwan of today.
“Confronted with daunting international challenges, he skilfully led the people of Taiwan by promoting pragmatic diplomacy. Taiwan became synonymous with democracy and was catapulted onto the world stage. Because of this, President Lee came to be lauded as Mr Democracy,” Tsai said.
“Thanks to his efforts, Taiwan now shines as a beacon of democracy.
“We have a responsibility to continue his endeavours, allowing the will of the people to reshape Taiwan, further defining Taiwan’s identity and deepening and bolstering democracy and freedom,” she added.
Lee became Taiwan’s first democratically elected president in March 1996 after eight months of intimidating war games and missile tests by China in waters around the island. Those events brought China and Taiwan to the verge of conflict, prompting the US to send an aircraft carrier task force to the area in a warning to Beijing’s government.
Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing also reviles as a separatist, sent a recorded video message for his “close friend” Lee.
“Now he is no longer here, but we Buddhists believe in life after life, so most probably he will be reborn in Taiwan,” he said.
Lee’s remains will be interred at a military cemetery next month.