According to a brief notice issued by the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command, the patrol was conducted near the Taiwan Strait to further improve the joint combat capability of “multiple military services and branches”.
“This military operation organised by the theatre forces is aimed at the serious wrong words and deeds of relevant countries on the Taiwan issue and the activities of the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces. It is a necessary measure to safeguard national sovereignty,” theatre command spokesman Shi Yi said.
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It was the first time mainland authorities described an operation against Taiwan as a joint combat readiness patrol, indicating different forces were involved in the exercise.
The Taiwanese defence ministry said six mainland Chinese military aircraft entered its southwestern air defence zone on Tuesday, including four J-16 fighter jets and two surveillance planes.
The latest military manoeuvre came as US lawmakers – including Republican senators John Cornyn of Texas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama – were making an unannounced visit to the island on a US Navy C-40A plane.
Both Taipei and Washington remained tight-lipped about the trip, which was arranged by the American Institute in Taiwan, the informal US embassy, according to Taiwanese officials.
Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said on Wednesday that relations between the island and Washington were “very important” and that he respected “mutual visits between friends”. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said only that it was not uncommon for US lawmakers to be transported by military aircraft.
Beijing protested the visit on Wednesday, with Zhu Fenglian, spokesman for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office saying China was “resolutely opposed” to any military exchanges between the US and Taiwan.
“Attempts by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to seek Taiwan independence by relying on the US are doomed to fail,” he said. “No one should ever underestimate the strong determination of Chinese people in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei described the visit as a “provocative action” which “rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs”.
“The Chinese PLA will always maintain a state of high alert and take all necessary measures to resolutely smash any interference by external forces and separatist plots for ‘Taiwan independence’,” he said.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the joint combat readiness patrols implied the Eastern Theatre Command was preparing to be able to respond quickly to any intervention from foreign forces amid the escalating and complex cross-strait tensions.
“Since Taiwan independence forces have become so active, the PLA should be ready to use military means to stop any provocative moves once the independent-learning units and foreign forces touch Beijing’s red line,” Song said.
“It’s a high alert signal, not yet a formal war preparation. But it might increase conflicts between the PLA and Taiwanese militaries once either side takes a provocative move.”
Beijing has repeatedly warned Washington against sending officials or having formal contacts with Taiwan. It views the island as a rogue province that must be reunited with the mainland eventually, by force if necessary.
Three US senators made a brief visit to Taiwan on a military transport plane in June, prompting Beijing to send military planes to harass the island.
In October, the mainland deployed more than 200 military jets to the island’s air defence identification zone, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen also confirmed for the first time that US troops were in Taiwan for training purposes.
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