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China launches combat drills in Taiwan Strait, warns U.S. not to ‘play with fire’

A photo released by Taiwan’s defense ministry shows a Chinese People’s Liberation Army H-6 bomber near Taiwan on Friday. Military tensions across the strait have been rising. (Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/AP)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The Chinese military expressed its displeasure Friday toward a senior State Department official's visit to Taipei by conducting "real combat" drills in Taiwanese airspace that further raised the stakes amid a period of intense military activity in the volatile Taiwan Strait.

The new drills came hours before Undersecretary of State Keith Krach was due to meet Taiwanese President ­Tsai ­Ing-wen in the capital and a day after news emerged that the Trump administration sought to push forward a multibillion-dollar sale of advanced weapons to the self-ruled island to beef up its defenses against Beijing.

China flew two bombers and 16 fighters that crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry said, adding that it responded by scrambling fighter jets and activating missile systems.

The latest provocation came two days after China flew anti-submarine aircraft into Taiwanese airspace and a week after China conducted a large-scale naval and air maneuver surrounding an outlying Taiwanese island as part of a steadily escalating pressure campaign against Taipei.

On China’s front line, emerging Cold War haunts battle-worn Taiwanese islands

Taiwanese officials have decried the escalation in the strait, one of the world’s most militarized flash points, and have warned that it could devolve into all-out war. Taiwan’s presidential office urged Beijing on Friday not to be a “provocateur,” saying that its aggressive actions did not help China’s international image.

The new drills Friday were a “legitimate action of the Chinese military in promoting our security and sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Col. Ren Guoqiang, a China Defense Ministry spokesman, told reporters. “The United States and the Democratic Progressive Party have been colluding recently, frequently stirring up trouble.”

He accused the Taiwanese ruling party of “relying on foreigners” to promote independence and cautioned Washington against “using Taiwan to control China.”

“Those who play with fire will be burned,” Ren warned.

China has watched with anger as the Trump administration has drawn closer to Taiwan with a flurry of semiofficial diplomatic exchanges, weapons sales and trade agreements. China views the self-ruled democratic island, which has never formally declared independence, as part of its territory and has vowed to absorb it by force if necessary.

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The three-day visit by Krach, as undersecretary in charge of economic affairs, marks the highest-level State Department visit to Taiwan in decades. The purpose of Krach’s trip is nominally to attend a memorial service for former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, but the visit is seen as possibly paving the way for a future bilateral trade agreement between Taipei and Washington after the two governments reached a breakthrough last month that allowed U.S. meat exports into Taiwan.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan last month, prompting a similar protest from China in the form of fighter jet incursions.

Apart from dispatching senior officials to meet Tsai in shows of U.S. support, the Trump administration also is preparing to sell to Taiwan seven major weapons systems, including mines, cruise missiles and drones, as part of a Pentagon program known as “Fortress Taiwan,” Reuters reported Wednesday.

The Taiwanese Defense Ministry did not confirm or deny the report, saying only that it would conduct arms purchases in a “low key” and “confidential” manner.

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