Amid tension, China carrier group sails through Taiwan Strait

TAIPEI (Reuters) - A Chinese carrier group has sailed through the narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the self-ruled island from its giant neighbor but no unusual activity was detected, Taiwan said on Wednesday, amid heightened tension with Beijing.

FILE PHOTO: China's aircraft carrier Liaoning departs Hong Kong, China, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

Beijing has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward Taiwan since the election two years ago of President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

China suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, though she has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

In recent months, China has stepped up military drills around Taiwan, alarming Taipei. China says the exercises are routine, but that it will not tolerate any attempt by the island to declare independence.

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said a group of Chinese ships led by the Liaoning aircraft carrier entered the southwestern part of the Taiwan Strait in the early hours of Tuesday, though it stayed on the Chinese side of the waterway.

As of midday on Wednesday the carrier group had left Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone heading in a northerly direction, the ministry said, adding it had monitored the group’s movements throughout.

“While the group was passing through the Taiwan Strait there were no abnormal activities, and people can rest easy,” it added.

China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the Soviet-era Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, has passed through the Taiwan Strait before on its way to and from exercises in the South China Sea.

While heavily traveled by commercial shipping and flights, the Taiwan Strait is also a sensitive military zone.

This month, Taiwan complained about China launching a new air route for civilian flights that runs close to two groups of Taiwan-controlled islands off the Chinese coast in the strait, saying it threatened regional security and aviation safety.

China does not need Taiwan’s permission to open new air routes, a government spokesman said on Wednesday, denying there was a safety risk.

Taiwan said on Friday the new flight path was so close to the middle line of the Taiwan Strait that it would affect Taiwan air force exercises and other flight operations.

“The planes can come very close to each other,” an official added, referring to other connecting routes that China has opened and where Taiwan civilian flights already operate.

“It becomes a very dangerous situation if we do not consult with each other.”

China, which considers Taiwan a wayward province, snapped official communication with its government after Tsai took office.

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez