Taiwan-China tensions ratchet up week before presidential inauguration

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te speaks as incoming Defence Minister Wellington Koo stands next to him during a press conference, in Taipei

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan reported Chinese forces were carrying out another “combat patrol” near the island on Tuesday, including sending aircraft across the Taiwan Strait’s sensitive median line, as tensions rise a week before a new Taiwanese president takes office.

Over the past four years, China's military has significantly ramped up its activities around democratically-governed Taiwan. Beijing views the island as its own territory, a position the government in Taipei strongly rejects.

On Monday, Taiwan's president-elect Lai Ching-te will be inaugurated following his election in January. Beijing has labelled Lai a "dangerous separatist" and has rejected repeated offers for talks.

Addressing the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in a pre-recorded message on Tuesday, Lai said he would work to safeguard to the status quo across the strait.

“I will not rule out dialogue with China on the principles of mutual respect, mutual benefits and dignity, with no preconditions,” he said.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said that starting at 5pm (0900GMT) it had spotted 23 Chinese military aircraft, including advanced Su-30 fighters, carrying out “joint combat readiness patrols” in conjunction with warships.

A total of 15 of the Chinese aircraft crossed the strait’s median line, or areas nearby, and flew into airspace to the north, centre and southwest of Taiwan, the ministry said.

The median line previously served as an unofficial border between the two sides, but Chinese military aircraft now regularly cross it. China says it does not recognise the line's existence.

This is at least the third time in the space of a month Taiwan has reported a Chinese “joint combat readiness patrol”.

China’s defence ministry did not answer calls seeking comment outside of office hours.

Separately, Taiwan’s coast guard reported that on Tuesday the Chinese coast guard carried out another patrol in waters close to the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen islands, which sit next to the Chinese cities of Xiamen and Quanzhou.

Taiwan sent six patrol ships to warn off the five Chinese boats, which Taiwan’s coast guard said was the fifth time this month China had mounted such a mission around Kinmen.

China should restrain itself and stop such “irrational” moves, the coast guard said in a statement.

“The Coast Guard will uphold the principle of non-provocation and not showing weakness, continue to strengthen its law enforcement position, and deter mainland China’s actions that endanger navigational safety,” it added.

China’s coast guard has no publicly available contact information.

Chinese state media has described their coast guard patrols around Kinmen as "normal law enforcement inspections" to help protect fishermen. Taiwan has decried the patrols as an intimidation tactic.

The patrols began in February following a dispute about the death of two Chinese nationals who tried fleeing Taiwan's coast guard upon entering prohibited Kinmen waters.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Sharon Singleton)