US warns Beijing over incursion into Taiwanese air defence zone

The US has urged China to stop intimidating Taiwan after Chinese fighter jets and bombers flew into the country’s air defence zone, in the second warning to Beijing since Joe Biden became US president on Wednesday.

“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,” the US state department said.

Taiwan said four Chinese J-16 fighter jets, six H-6 bombers and one anti-submarine aircraft had entered its “air defence identification zone” on Saturday. Taiwanese media on Sunday reported that another group of Chinese military aircraft had also harassed the country’s air defences.

Ned Price, state department spokesperson, said the US was concerned about China’s “pattern” of intimidating Taiwan — and other neighbours — and reminded Beijing that the US relationship with Taipei was “rock solid”.

The warning came three days after the US presidential inauguration, which was attended by Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative to the US. The invitation marked the first time that a de facto Taiwanese ambassador to Washington had attended an American presidential inauguration.

Saturday’s incursion was the largest in more than four months. It included the biggest number of Chinese bombers entering Taiwan’s air defence identification zone in several years. It was the most significant since China sent 16 fighters, accompanied by bombers and spy planes, across the unofficial median line in the Taiwan Strait for two straight days in September when Keith Krach, a then senior US official, was visiting Taipei.

The state department statement marked the second time the Biden administration has criticised Beijing, underscoring how the US-China relationship will be one of the biggest challenges for the new president. The White House his week criticised Beijing for sanctioning 28 Americans, including Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state. 

Ahead of the US election, some critics had expressed concern that Mr Biden would not take an assertive stand towards China. But his team has already shown signs it will take China to task over a range of issues, including the repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, the intimidation of Taiwan, and Beijing’s clampdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Last month, Jake Sullivan, now national security adviser, said he was “deeply concerned” about the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and accused China of conducting an “assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms”.

Appearing before the US Senate for their confirmation hearings this week, Tony Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, and Avril Haines, the newly installed director of national intelligence, said Washington needed to take a harsher stance towards China. Mr Blinken said he disagreed with the way Donald Trump had implemented his hawkish China policy but that the former president “was right in taking a tougher approach”.

China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and threatens to invade the island if Taipei refuses indefinitely to submit to its control, started crossing the Taiwan Strait with military aircraft regularly in March 2019, something both sides had largely avoided for the preceding two decades.

Over the past year, the PLA has started flying almost daily sorties into the south-western corner of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, an important transit area between the Chinese coast, the western Pacific and the South China Sea.

But according to reports from Taiwan’s defence minister, the vast majority of the sorties are by one to three surveillance or anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Only during visits by then US secretary of health Alex Azar and Mr Krach last year did China send larger number of planes including fighters.

Taiwanese observers believe China’s latest sortie might be a signal of its displeasure over Ms Hsiao’s invitation to the inauguration.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille on Twitter

*This article has been amended to correct Jake Sullivan’s name

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