China Sails Military Carriers Through Taiwan Strait as Taiwan Election Campaign Picks up Pace

China Sails Military Carriers Through Taiwan Strait as Taiwan Election Campaign Picks up Pace
Chinese J-15 fighter jets being launched from the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the Yellow Sea, off China's east coast on December 23, 2016. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI—China has sailed a carrier group into the sensitive Taiwan Strait led by its first domestically built aircraft carrier, as election campaigning kicked into high gear on the self-ruled island on Nov. 17.

Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said they would not be intimidated.

Democratic Taiwan is claimed by China as a wayward province and is the Communist Party’s most sensitive and important territorial issue.

Taiwan’s defense ministry announced the sailing in the strait just hours after President Tsai Ing-wen named as her running mate for 2020 elections a former premier who angered Beijing so badly last year with his support for Taiwan’s formal independence that a major Chinese paper called for his arrest.

The Chinese carrier group had sailed in a southerly direction through the Taiwan Strait, trailed by U.S. and Japanese ships, Taiwan’s defense ministry said in its short statement without giving details on exactly when it happened.

The island scrambled ships and aircraft to monitor the group and “ensure national security and safeguarding of regional peace and stability,” it added.

The still-unnamed carrier was launched last year, but Chinese military experts have told state media it is not expected to enter service until 2020, once it has been fully kitted out and armed.

Speaking earlier in the day in Bangkok, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper slammed China’s behavior broadly during defense talks with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

“Beijing is increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives, at the expense of other nations,” Esper said, without mentioning the Chinese carrier passage.

Taiwan’s Wu said China was intending to intervene in their elections, just as Tsai had named her running mate and “the campaign shifts into high gear.”

“Voters won’t be intimidated! They'll say NO to China at the ballot box,” he tweeted.

Tsai had begun the day by announcing her vice-president candidate, William Lai, premier until January when he stepped down to take responsibility for a defeat in regional elections last November for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

In April last year, while still premier, Lai told parliament he was a “Taiwan independence worker” and that his position was that Taiwan was a sovereign, independent country.

Accepting Tsai’s nomination, Lai made no mention of independence, but said the island had to stand up to pressure from an encroaching China “at this darkest time to unite and defend Taiwan, to continue to show the ray of light of democracy.”

While the Democratic Progressive Party is pro-independence, Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo with China, but will defend Taiwan’s security and democracy.

By Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee