Taiwan says China air force conducts long-range drills

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Chinese military aircraft on Saturday flew over waterways near Taiwan as part of long-range exercises, Taiwan said, the first such flights since a telephone call between Taiwan’s leader and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump irked China.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump at her office in Taipei, Taiwan, in this handout photo made available December 3, 2016. Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via REUTERS

China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has never renounced the use of force to take back what it deems a wayward province.

Trump’s call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2 was the first between a U.S. president-elect or president and a Taiwan leader since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 1979.

China lodged a diplomatic protest over the call and blamed Taiwan for what it called a “petty” move.

But there was no indication the exercise by its military aircraft was a response to the telephone call.

The Chinese jets flew north to south and entered the Miyako Strait around Japan’s southern islands as well as the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan, but did not enter Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, Taiwan’s defence ministry said in a statement.

Japan sent out two of its fighter jets in response to the Chinese flight, China’s defence ministry said.

The two Japanese F-15 fighter jets flew over the Miyako Strait and conducted “close range interference” and fired decoy flares, “jeopardizing the security of Chinese aircraft and pilots”, ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement on his ministry’s website.

Yang said China had grave concerns and lodged a protest over the behaviour of the Japanese aircraft during what he called “routine” drills in international waters.

“The behaviour of the Japanese military aircraft was dangerous, unprofessional, and damaged freedom of navigation and overflight under international law,” he said.

“Our jet fighters did not obstruct the flight of the Chinese planes. Nothing extraordinary happened,” a spokesman for Japan’s Self-Defense Force told Reuters on Saturday.

China’s drills, lasting for about four hours, involved more than 10 aircraft, including four electronic surveillance planes that flew through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, Taiwan said.

China, which has in recent years become more assertive in the western Pacific and South China Sea, has carried out similar exercises in the area since September.

The Chinese air force has described the exercises as part of regular, annual drills which accord with international law and practice.

Reporting by J.R. Wu in Taipei and Michael Martina in Beijing; Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo in Tokyo; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sam Holmes