By Ben Blanchard and Yew Lun Tian
TAIPEI/BEIJING (Reuters) -China said it conducted military drills around Taiwan on Friday as a U.S. Congressional delegation visited the island in a show of support to a fellow democracy, with Beijing blaming the lawmakers for raising tensions with their “provocative” trip.
China’s military sent frigates, bombers and fighter planes to the East China Sea and the area around Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theatre Command said, in a statement released as the lawmakers were holding a news conference in Taipei.
“This operation is in response to the recent frequent release of wrong signals by the United States on the Taiwan issue,” it said, without mentioning the visiting U.S. delegation.
“The U.S. bad actions and tricks are completely futile and very dangerous. Those who play with fire will burn themselves,” it said.
China’s Defence Ministry, in a separate statement, said the U.S. visit was “deliberately provocative” and had “led to further escalation of tension in the Taiwan Strait”.
Taiwan is a frequent source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham told Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during the delegation’s meeting with her that the war in Ukraine and provocative behaviour by China have united U.S. opinion in a way not seen before.
“To abandon Taiwan would be to abandon democracy and freedom,” he said. “There’s a backlash growing in the world to thuggery – to the bad guys.”
Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the technology hub is a “country of global significance” and its security has implications for the world.
The bipartisan group of six lawmakers arrived for their two-day visit on Thursday, in a previously unannounced trip.
Such visits, and a reference to Taiwan as a “country”, always anger Beijing, which dismisses any suggestion that Taiwan is a country. China regards the island as one of its provinces.
The United States has no formal relations with Chinese-claimed Taiwan but is its most important international backer and arms supplier.
Menendez acknowledged the Chinese government was “very unhappy” with the delegation’s visit but said that would not dissuade the group from supporting Taiwan.
“With Taiwan producing 90% of the world’s high-end semiconductor products, it is a country of global significance, consequence and impact, and therefore it should be understood the security of Taiwan has a global impact,” Menendez told Tsai.
Taiwan has been heartened by the U.S. support offered by the Biden administration, which has repeatedly talked of its “rock-solid” commitment to the democratically governed island.
That has added to strains in Sino-U.S. relations.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also put Taipei on alert for any possible moves by Beijing to use the Ukraine crisis to make a move on the island. The government though has reported no sign that China is about to invade.
Taiwan has complained for the past two years or so of stepped-up Chinese military activity, including almost daily air force flights into Taiwan’s air defence zone, but not close to the island itself.
(Reporting By Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee in Taipei, and Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe in Beijing; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Robert Birsel and Edmund Klamann)