China sends carrier through Taiwan Strait after Xi Jinping warns against separatism

Island’s defence minister says Liaoning entered the area on the same day leader warned of ‘punishment of history’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 9:45pm

Taiwan has sent ships and aircraft to shadow an aircraft carrier group from the Chinese mainland through the narrow Taiwan Strait, its defence ministry said on Wednesday, after Chinese President Xi Jinping offered his strongest warning against Taiwan separatism to date.

Beijing claims the self-ruled island as its sacred territory and considers it a wayward province, which Xi said on Tuesday would face the “punishment of history” for any attempt at separatism.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said the carrier group, led by the mainland’s sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, entered the waterway late on Tuesday, but kept on its western side.

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By midday on Wednesday it had left Taiwan’s air defence identification zone heading southwest, the ministry said, adding it looked like Beijing was conducting drills.

Taiwan’s military sent ships and aircraft to shadow the carrier group the entire way, but spotted nothing out of the ordinary and people in Taiwan should not be concerned, it said.

The mainland’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In January, the Liaoning sailed twice through the Taiwan Strait, in what Beijing said was part of routine drills.

Taiwan says Beijing has ramped up military exercises around the island in the past year or so. The island is one of the mainland’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint.

Beijing’s hostility towards Taipei has risen since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

The mainland suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing, although Tsai has always said she wanted to maintain the status quo and was committed to ensuring peace.

The mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office on Monday expressed anger at Taiwanese Premier William Lai’s description of the island as a sovereign independent country, calling it a “serious provocation” and said Taiwan never was, or could ever be, one.

Beijing has also been infuriated by a law signed last week by US President Donald Trump that encourages the United States to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts, and vice versa.

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US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday, and was expected to speak at a business event in Taipei on Wednesday, which Tsai would also attend.

Beijing has already lodged a protest over the new Taiwan Travel Law, saying it violates US commitments not to restore formal exchanges severed when Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing.