China sent almost 20 warplanes into Taiwan's airspace in an unusually large show of force as a response to a senior U.S. official's visit to the self-governing island.
Eighteen Chinese military aircraft, including two H-6 strategic bombers and fighter jets, crossed the so-called median line on Friday morning, according to a statement from Taiwan's defense ministry: "The military scrambled fighters and deployed air defense missile systems to monitor the activities."
Keith Krach, U.S. undersecretary for economic affairs, arrived in Taiwan on Thursday to attend a memorial service for former President Lee Teng-hui. He is the highest-level official from the U.S. State Department to visit Taipei in decades.
Beijing condemned the visit, vowing "China will make necessary responses in accordance with the development of the situation," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Thursday.
China also sent military aircraft across the median line when U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visited Taipei last month. However, previous crossings into Taiwanese airspace had not involved so many warplanes approaching from multiple directions at once.
A report by Taiwan's defense ministry showed a map of the flight paths of Chinese warplanes crossing the Taiwan Strait midline, and a picture of missiles being loaded onto an H-6 bomber.
"PLA Friday drills not warning, but rehearsal for Taiwan takeover," a headline by China-backed newspaper Global Times said Friday. "In fact, the Friday exercise is a landmark in the struggle across the Taiwan Straits."
Michael Hunzeker, a professor at George Mason University's School of Policy and Government, said it is likely that Beijing is also trying to convince Washington that these kinds of high-profile visits aren't risk free. By conducting such provocative military exercises, "there's always the chance for an accident or a collision that could spark a crisis that both sides would find hard to control," Hunzeker told VOA in an email.
Krach’s visit comes as U.S.-China relations are at their lowest point in decades. Washington this week further angered China by announcing more arms sales to Taiwan. The planned trade deal would involve as many as seven major weapons systems, including drones, sea mines and missiles able to strike targets deep inside Chinese territory.
In recent months, prominent American foreign policy experts have been calling for an end to strategic ambiguity, a policy shift that most would have considered outlandish or extreme not so long ago.
On Thursday, a congressman from Wisconsin, Tom Tiffany, introduced legislation calling for the U.S. to resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and end the "one China policy," a cornerstone of U.S.-China relations for more than 40 years.
"The nature of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is clearly shifting," said Hunzeker, a Marine Corps veteran. While it is unlikely these recent developments will lead Xi Jinping to authorize an attack on Taiwan in the immediate future, "we cannot dismiss the risk of miscalculation or accidental escalation entirely," Hunzeker said.