As Biden's emissaries go to Taiwan, China terms exercises 'combat drills'

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FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting in Taipei

BEIJING (Reuters) -China described its military exercises near Taiwan as "combat drills" on Wednesday, upping the ante as senior former U.S. officials arrived in Taipei on a trip to signal President Joe Biden's commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.

Taiwan has complained over the proximity of repeated Chinese military activity, including fighter jets and bombers entering its air defence zone and a Chinese aircraft carrier exercising off the island, which is claimed by Beijing.

Twenty-five Chinese air force aircraft, including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers, entered Taiwan's air defence identification zone (ADIZ) on Monday, the largest reported incursion by Taipei to date.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office said Taiwan's government and separatists were colluding with "external forces".

"The People's Liberation Army's organising of actual combat exercises in the Taiwan Strait is a necessary action to address the current security situation in the Taiwan Strait and to safeguard national sovereignty," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said.

"It is a solemn response to external forces' interference and provocations by Taiwan independence" forces, he added.

"The PLA's military exercises and training operations are sending a signal that our determination to curb Taiwan independence and Taiwan-U.S. collusion is not just talk."

China has previously offered little public comment on its recent military movements near Taiwan. Its defence ministry referred to them only as "military activities" in late January.

The United States, which like most countries only officially recognises China's government and not Taiwan's, is however Taipei's strongest international backer and has watched tensions mount with growing alarm.

Former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg arrived in Taiwan on Wednesday in an unmarked private jet, in what a White House official called a "personal signal" of the president's commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.

They are due to meet Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday, in a trip that is further straining Sino-U.S. relations.

Taiwan presidential office spokesman Xavier Chang said the trip "again shows the Taiwan-U.S. relationship is rock solid, and is a full expression of cross-party support for Taiwan in the United States".

Tsai has repeatedly said Taiwan is an independent country called the Republic of China, its formal name.

Ma, the Chinese spokesman, said the meeting of the U.S. officials with Tsai "will only exacerbate the tense situation in the Taiwan Strait", and that it didn't matter whether this was being cast as an official or unofficial visit.

"We resolutely oppose the U.S. exaggeration of the so-called 'Chinese military threat' argument, and resolutely oppose the U.S. playing the 'Taiwan card' and continuing to send wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces," he added.

"Taiwan independence is a dead end and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party are trying to 'use arms to seek independence'", Ma said.

"That is to drink poison in the hopes of slaking one's thirst, and will only push Taiwan towards disaster."

(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing by Se Young Lee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Raju Gopalakrishnan)