China on Monday cried foul and lodged a “stern” diplomatic protest with the United States over the visit of Health Service Secretary Alex Azar to Taipei, the first high-ranking American official to visit the self-ruled island in over four decades, while Chinese air force jets intruded into Taiwan's airspace in an apparent show of force.
Azar, the highest-ranking Cabinet member to visit Taiwan since the US switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, kicked off his three-day visit by meeting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
China, which considers the estranged island of Taiwan as part of its mainland, vociferously objects to any high-level foreign dignitaries meeting Taiwanese leaders.
Azar's visit comes amid an all-time low in US-China relations and it was regarded as the major diplomatic setback for Beijing which asserts that the ‘One-China' policy constitutes the core of its foreign policy with all the countries which established diplomatic relations with it.
Tsai, a firm proponent of Taiwan's independence from China, said Azar's landmark visit is a “new start” for Taiwan-US relations and she expects more breakthroughs in cooperation between Washington and Taipei.
Much on the expected lines, Beijing reacted angrily saying that the visit is the betrayal of the US commitment to the ‘One-China' policy.
Azar's visit was facilitated by the 2018 passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which encouraged Washington to send higher-level officials to Taiwan after decades during which such contacts were rare.
The Taiwan News reported that ahead of the Tsai-Azar meeting, Chinese fighter jets crossed over the median line of the Taiwan Strait on Monday.
Taiwan's Air Force Command Headquarters said that Shenyang J-11 and Chengdu J-10 fighter jets belonging to the Chinese Air Force crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the unofficial airspace boundary between the two sides, for a brief period at 9 a.m, according to the report.
After the Chinese fighter jets ignored a verbal warning, Taiwanese aircraft swiftly intercepted the warplanes and drove them away from Taiwan's airspace, it said.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing that “China firmly opposes official ties between US and Taiwan”.
"We have lodged stern representations with the US. I would like to stress once again that the Taiwan question is the most important sensitive issue between China, US relations," he said.
"The One-China principle is the basis for China-US relations. What the US did severely violates its commitment on Taiwan related issues,” he said.
"We urge the US side to abide by One-China principle and three joint communique, stop its official exchange and contact with Taiwan in whatever form,” he said.
"US should stop elevating its relations with Taiwan, deal with Taiwan related matters with caution and properly so that it will not cause severe damage to China-US cooperation in major areas and peace stability across the Taiwan straits,” he added.
The US delegation led by Azar arrived on a flag-carrier American transport plane at Taipei's Songshan airport on Sunday, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
Led by Azar, the group's first public activity was a meeting with Tsai to convey President Donald Trump's support for the self-ruled island and admiration for its success in both democracy and containing the coronavirus outbreak.
"It is a true honour to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar said in his meeting with Tsai at the island's Presidential Office.
Stressing that the US admired Taiwan's democratic success, Azar said the US was pleased to strengthen cooperation and partnership with Taiwan, the Post report said.
"President Trump has signed legislation to strengthen the partnership between Taiwan and the US, and in 2018, we opened a new American Institute in Taiwan -- a brick-and-mortar commitment to our treasured friendship,” he said, referring to the US opening of a new headquarters compound for AIT, the US de facto embassy in Taiwan in the absence of formal relations.
"The particular focus of both my discussion with President Tsai and of our trip is highlighting Taiwan's success on health in combating COVID-19 and to cooperate with the US to prevent, detect and respond to the health threats,” he said.
Tsai expressed her appreciation for the US' strong support for Taiwan and its commitment to help the island expand its global participation, a move Beijing has found provocative and called a violation of America's “One-China” policy.
"I believe under cooperation and efforts between the two sides, there will be more breakthroughs, not only in combating the pandemic, but also in other areas and exchanges bilaterally,” she said.
"I want to use this opportunity to thank President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Health Secretary Azar as well as many other American friends for their persistent recognition of Taiwan's contribution to the world over the fighting of the pandemic,” she said, adding she also wanted to thank the US for its strong support for Taiwan's “global participation”.
She said Taiwan could have done more to fight the pandemic and other health issues were it not for “political consideration” by the World Health Organisation, reiterating allegations that the world healthy body has succumbed to pressure from Beijing.