China’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, is engaged in an exercise in the western Pacific amid heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait over a meeting between President Tsai Ing-wen and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy.
Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters in parliament on Thursday that the aircraft carrier was 200 nautical miles (370km) off Taiwan’s east coast.
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“It is training but the timing is quite sensitive, and what it is up to we are still studying,” Chiu said, adding aircraft had yet to be seen taking off from its deck.
He later told lawmakers Taiwanese warships were monitoring the carrier at a distance of five to six nautical miles.
The Shandong, China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier, sailed through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan and into the Pacific on Wednesday with a number of other ships from the Chinese navy.
China’s state-run Global Times said the deployment showed the Shandong was “fully ready for far sea operations and safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. State media say the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Eastern Theatre Command has been holding “intensive drills” on land, as well as in the sea and air over the past week. The Command covers China’s eastern coast.
The exercises come as Tsai met McCarthy in the US state of California, in a stopover furiously condemned by Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.
Tsai is on her way back to Taipei following Wednesday’s meeting, which she said was warm like the Californian sunshine.
McCarthy described Tsai as “a great friend to America”.
At a press conference after their talks, McCarthy reiterated the close ties between the US and Taiwan.
“The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world, and it is critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability,” he said.
Tsai, meanwhile, thanked McCarthy and other US legislators who joined the meeting.
“Their presence and unwavering support reassure the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and we are not alone,” Tsai said, later adding: “We are stronger when we are together.”
The meeting took place as Tsai returned from a trip to Belize and Guatemala, two of Taiwan’s 13 remaining diplomatic allies.
‘Great power image’
The US has not had formal relations with Taiwan since 1979 but is the island’s most significant international supporter and arms supplier.
Beijing reiterated in a statement on Thursday that Taiwan was “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations”, threatening “strong and resolute measures” in response to the McCarthy-Tsai meeting.
After his predecessor as House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan last August, China staged large-scale military drills that included firing missiles over and around the island. The Global Times reported unnamed experts saying the PLA was likely “to take countermeasures, including by holding large-scale and long-lasting drills around the island of Taiwan, and push forward the progress of national reunification”.
There has been no official comment from Beijing on the presence of the Shandong in the Pacific.
China’s Defence Ministry condemned the Tsai-McCarthy meeting, but did not threaten specific action.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army adheres to its duties and missions, maintains a high degree of alert at all times, resolutely defends national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and resolutely maintains peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” it said in a statement.
The Shandong’s appearance also came as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Beijing for talks. The two are due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping later on Thursday.
An official in Taiwan said Beijing might not want to step up action while it was trying to show a more diplomatic face to the world and cast itself as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine.
“So at the moment they are continuing to put on a more peaceful, great power image,” Ko Cheng-heng, deputy head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, told lawmakers in Taipei.
Taiwan has also expressed concern about China’s plan to inspect ships in the Taiwan Strait, which was announced late on Wednesday.
It has told shipping operators that if they encounter such requests from China’s maritime safety administration they should refuse and immediately notify Taiwan’s coast guard for assistance.
Chiu said Taiwan will react if Chinese patrol ships cross the strait’s median line, which normally serves as an unofficial barrier between the two sides.
China claims the Taiwan Strait is its sovereign territory.
“It was China that unilaterally announced its jurisdiction over that sea, and we do not agree with this,” Chiu said.