Ministry of National Defense officials confirmed that two US F/A-18 jets on Thursday flew near a C-130 plane carrying a group of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) officials as they returned from Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), but said the US jets posed no threat and flew off after a few minutes.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers yesterday said the US government was sending a message to Taiwan.
The visit to the island was reportedly ordered by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and it consisted of a 30-member delegation headed by former KMT officials, including 96-year-old retired army general Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村) and 67-year-old former premier Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國).
Over international waters, the jets flew close to visual range, ministry officials said.
The jets reportedly came from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier battle group as it carried out patrols and drills in the area.
US military experts said the fly-by was a routine identification of aircraft in the proximity of a US aircraft carrier, and there was no political agenda involved.
“The US and Taiwan are hooked up on a ‘hotline’ that is part of the Pentagon’s Global Information Grid and uses Type 1 cryptography for military communications,” Defense News Asia bureau chief Wendell Minnick said. “What this means is the US and Taiwan are very cozy during a crisis.”
“However, a political message for either Ma or [president-elect] Tsai [Ing-wen (蔡英文)] would be personally delivered by the director of the American Institute in Taiwan [AIT] and not an F/A-18 Super Hornet,” said Minnick, who is based in Taipei.
“We send Hornets to explain things to countries like North Korea, not allies and friends, like Taiwan,” he said.
Nevertheless, the incident sparked debate by politicians.
DPP Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) said the fly-by was a message to Ma.
“We believe the two F-18 jets were monitoring the C-130 flight carrying the KMT old guard. The visit was Ma’s way to assert sovereignty in the Spratly Islands [Nansha Islands, 南沙群島)] area on behalf of China,” Lo said. “The US wants to show its presence in the region. In a sense, it was the US government telling Ma that it does not agree with Thursday’s visit to Itu Aba.”
The KMT caucus held a briefing to say the fly-by was routine.