January 23, 2020 / 6:51 AM / a month ago

Taiwan says Chinese air force passes to island's south in drills

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Chinese air force planes passed through the narrow Bashi Channel to the south of Taiwan on a long-range exercise on Thursday, Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said, the first such drills near the island publicised since Taiwan held elections this month.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory to be taken by force if needed. It has routinely sent bombers and other aircraft close to the island since President Tsai Ing-wen first took office in 2016.

Beijing believes Tsai is pushing for the island’s formal independence.

Tsai says Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name. She won re-election by a landslide this month on a platform of standing up to China.

In a short statement, the Defence Ministry said Chinese aircraft including H-6 bombers and KJ-500 early warning and control aircraft flew to the south of Taiwan through the Bashi Channel which separates the island from the Philippines.

After carrying out drills above the Pacific Ocean the aircraft returned to China, the ministry said.

Taiwan’s armed forces have a well-honed system to monitor and respond to such drills, it added, without giving details or saying whether Taiwanese fighter jets were scrambled.

China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Following Tsai’s re-election earlier this month, Chinese state media suggested the country could flex its muscles near Taiwan to register Beijing’s continued displeasure with Tsai.

The seas around Taiwan are a closely-watched zone not only for Taipei and Beijing.

A U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait last week, and the U.S. Navy has been conducting sporadic sailings there since 2018.

China sailed its latest aircraft carrier, the Shandong, through the Taiwan Strait twice in the run-up to Taiwan’s Jan. 11 election. Taiwan denounced that as attempted intimidation.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by Kim Coghill

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