TAIPEI: Taiwan scrambled fighter jets on Friday as 18 Chinese aircraft buzzed the island, crossing the sensitive midline of the Taiwan Strait, in response to a senior US official holding talks in Taipei.

China had earlier announced combat drills and denounced what it called collusion between the island, which it claims as part of its territory, and the United States.

US Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach arrived in Taipei on Thursday for a three-day visit, the most senior State Department official to come to Taiwan in four decades — to which China had promised a “necessary response.” The US State Department has said Krach, who arrived in Taipei on Thursday afternoon, is in Taiwan for a memorial service on Saturday for former President Lee Teng-hui, who was revered by many on the island and internationally as the father of Taiwan’s democracy.

But Beijing has watched with growing alarm the ever-closer relationship between Taipei and Washington, and has stepped up military exercises near the island, including two days of large-scale air and sea drills last week.

With a US presidential election looming in November, Sino-US relations are already under huge strain from a trade war, US digital security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic.

Taiwan said 18 Chinese aircraft were involved on Friday, far more than in previous such encounters.

“Sep 18, two H-6 bombers, eight J-16 fighters, four J-10 fighters and four J-11 fighters crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait and entered Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ,” the defence ministry said in an English-language tweet.

“ROCAF scrambled fighters, and deployed air defence missile system to monitor the activities.” The ROCAF, Taiwan’s air force, has scrambled frequently in recent months in response to Chinese intrusions.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has led the Trump administration’s rhetorical offensive against China, accused Beijing of bluster when asked about the Chinese activity.

“We sent the delegation to a funeral, and the Chinese have apparently responded by military blustering. I’ll leave it at that,” he told a news conference on a visit to Guyana.

The ministry showed a map of the flight paths of Chinese jets crossing the Taiwan Strait midline, which combat aircraft from both sides normally avoid passing through.

Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper said Taiwanese jets had scrambled 17 times over four hours, warning China’s air force to stay away.

It also showed a picture of missiles being loaded onto an F-16 fighter at the Hualien air base on Taiwan’s east coast.

In Beijing, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said Friday’s maneuvers, about which he gave no details, involved the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theater 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.

He said Taiwan was a purely internal Chinese affair and accused its ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of stepping up “collusion” with the United States.

Trying to “use Taiwan to control China” or “rely on foreigners to build oneself up” was wishful thinking and futile. “Those who play with fire will get burnt,” Ren said.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020