China sends fighter jets as US health chief visits Taiwan

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Chinese air force planes briefly crossed the Taiwan Strait midline on Monday and were tracked down by Taiwanese rockets, the Taiwanese government said as US health chief Alex Azar visited the island to offer support to President Donald Trump .

Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit in four decades.

China, which claims the island as its own, condemned the visit, which comes after a period of sharply weakening relations between China and the United States.

China, which had promised unspecified repetition to the voyage, flew J-11 and J-10 fighter jets briefly to the side of Taiwan from the sensitive and narrow sea strait that separates it from its giant neighbor, at about 9 p.m. (0100 GMT), shortly before Azar met Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan Air Force said.

The planes were tracked down by native Taiwanese anti-aircraft missiles and were “driven out” by patrolling Taiwanese planes, the air force said in a statement released by the Ministry of Defense.

China’s Ministry of Defense did not immediately comment.

A senior Taiwanese official, familiar with the government’s security planning, told Reuters that China was obviously “targeting” Azar’s target on a “very risky” move, given the Chinese jets were within range of Taiwan’s missiles.

The raid was only the third time since 2016 that Taiwan said Chinese jets had crossed the median line of the sea strait.

The Trump administration has made strengthening its support for the Democratic island a priority, amid deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, and has encouraged arms sales.

“It is a real honor to be here to send a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar Tsai told the presidency, standing in front of two Taiwanese flags.

Washington broke official ties with Taipei in 1979 in favor of Beijing.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar with a face mask attended a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at the Presidential Office, in Taipei, Taiwan August 10, 2020. Central news agency / swimming pool via REUTERS


Azar is on a visit to strengthen economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan and to support its international role in combating the novel coronavirus.

“Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has been one of the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture,” he told Tsai.

Taiwan’s early and effective steps to combat the disease have kept its case numbers much lower than those of its neighbors, with 480 infections and seven deaths. Most cases are imported.

The United States, which has more cases and deaths with coronavirus than any other country, has repeatedly clashed with China over the pandemic, accusing Beijing of lacking transparency.

Tsai told Azar that his visit ‘was an enormous step forward in anti-pandemic cooperation between our countries’, citing areas of cooperation including vaccines and drug research and production.

Taiwan has been particularly grateful for US support for allowing it to participate in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly (WHA), and to give it greater access to the organization.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO because of China’s objections. China considers Taiwan a Chinese province.

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“I want to reiterate that political considerations should never take precedence over the rights to health. The decision to prevent Taiwan from participating in the WHA is a violation of universal health rights, ‘Tsai said.

Azar later told reporters that in the direction of Trump he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to restore Taiwan’s status as an observer at the WHA.

“But the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization have prevented that. This has been one of the major frustrations the Trump administration has had with the World Health Organization and its inability to reform. ”

Report by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Edited by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel

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