Taiwan president pledges to strengthen military as Chinese drills ebb
TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday thanked fighter pilots who scrambled against China's air force during its drills around the island and pledged to keep strengthening the armed forces, as Beijing's military activity in the vicinity ebbed.
China began its exercises, including simulated precision strikes with bombers and missile forces, on April 8 after Tsai returned from Los Angeles, where she met U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, infuriating Beijing.
China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, a claim the government in Taipei strongly rejects, and routinely denounces high-level meetings between Taiwanese and foreign leaders and officials.
In the central Taiwan city of Taichung, Tsai met fighter pilots who are often stationed at the frontline air base of Magong in the Taiwan Strait, thanking them for their hard work and for sticking to their posts around the clock.
"I want to tell everyone: as long as we are united, we can reassure the country's people and let the world see our determination to protect the nation," she said in a video clip provided by the presidential office.
Tsai noted that the Taiwan-made Ching-kuo Indigenous Defence Fighters (IDF), which entered service in 1997, had been upgraded to more advanced versions.
"In the future, we will continue to upgrade software and hardware facilities and strengthen personnel training," she said.
Tsai's office showed images of her talking to pilots dressed in flight uniforms and being given a briefing in front of an IDF parked in a hangar.
Visiting an army base in Taichung later on Friday, Tsai reiterated that Taiwan would neither "escalate conflict nor provoke disputes" but would protect its sovereignty, democracy and freedom, her office said.
China's three days of drills formally ended on Monday but Taiwan has reported more activity though on a reduced scale.
On Friday morning, Taiwan's defence ministry said it had not spotted any Chinese military aircraft crossing the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial boundary between the two, in the previous 24 hours.
On Friday afternoon, the ministry said that as of 2 p.m. (0600 GMT) two Chinese drones had been seen in the Taiwan Strait area carrying out surveillance, one of which crossed the median line while the other entered the southwestern part of Taiwan's air defence identification zone, or ADIZ.
The ministry also said that four Chinese navy ships were operating around Taiwan but it did not give their exact locations.
China says it does not recognise the median line and has since August, when it staged war games after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited, regularly flown fighter jets across it.
Taiwan's government says that although it wants peace and talks with China, it will not bow to pressure, and that Taiwan has a right to engage with the world.
A poll published on Friday by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, which bills itself as non-partisan, found that 61% of respondents approved of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Lincoln Feast, Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie)