Taiwanese Fighters Scrambled Amid Fears Beijing Could Be Emboldened by Ukraine Invasion

A Taiwan soldier adjusts his helmet in front of a Taiwan flag.
A Taiwan soldier adjusts his helmet in front of a Taiwan flag during the "Lien Yung" annual joint forces exercises in Pingtung County, southern Taiwan Thursday, June 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Taiwanese fighters scrambled Thursday to intercept and warn off nine Chinese warplanes that penetrated the island's declared air defense zone, Taiwan's Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The intercepts occurred after Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen "condemned Russia's violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine" and ordered her country's military to boost readiness and increase vigilance over the Taiwan Strait, moves announced in a Facebook post as tensions mounted in the region over concerns that Beijing might seek to take advantage of the U.S. focus on war in Europe.

The Defense Ministry said the Chinese aircraft consisted of eight J-16 strike fighters and one Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft; they turned back following warnings from the Taiwanese interceptors.

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The ministry also said air defense systems were alerted to "monitor activities," which has become almost routine in response to frequent Chinese probes of Taiwan's airspace.

The U.S. is aware of the latest report of Chinese aircraft approaching Taiwan and remains concerned about "provocative military action near Taiwan" that could lead to conflict, a Pentagon spokesman told Fox News.

Leading up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders warned that President Vladimir Putin's apparent determination to restore Moscow's dominance over Ukraine could embolden China to take action against Taiwan, which China regards as sovereign territory.

On Sunday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, "If Ukraine is endangered, the shock will echo around the world. And those echoes will be heard in east Asia -- will be heard in Taiwan."

Earlier this month, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a joint statement at the Winter Olympics in Beijing shoring up "strategic cooperation" between the two powers and affirming that Taiwan is part of China.

China signaled Thursday that it will continue to support Russia by announcing a deal to buy Russian wheat in an apparent effort to cushion the economic blow from U.S. and European sanctions.

But the invasion of Ukraine and violation of its sovereignty pose a policy dilemma for China, which has repeatedly blasted any moves by the U.S. or others to support Taiwan as a violation of its own sovereignty.

Chinese officials also sought to profess neutrality over Ukraine by calling for a peaceful settlement, while avoiding any criticism of Putin.

"The Ukraine issue has a very complicated historical background. It has evolved to the present situation due to the joint action of various factors," Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying said while reading from a script at a Beijing news conference Thursday.

Hua repeatedly sidestepped questions on whether Russia's actions violated Ukraine's sovereignty and said that "the legitimate security concerns of all parties should be respected and addressed."

At a news conference Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby sought to contrast China's policy on Taiwan with support for Putin, who announced Tuesday that Moscow was recognizing the independence of two separatist movements in Ukraine's Donbas region.

"I will point you back to the February 4 statement that Xi and Putin put out, which certainly we took as tacit approval for what Mr. Putin is doing," Kirby said. "We wonder, can it really be the Chinese policy now to support separatist movements over the sovereignty of nation states? That's an interesting twist, isn't it?"

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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