By Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard
TAIPEI (Reuters) – China is pressuring Taiwan with “provocative” air force maneuvers near the island and spreading fake news to sow discord during the coronavirus outbreak, security sources and government officials in Taiwan say.
The epidemic has strained already poor ties between Taipei and Beijing, with Taiwan especially angry at China’s efforts to block its participation at the World Health Organization (WHO).
The two governments have also argued about the fate of about 1,000 Taiwanese stranded in Wuhan, the outbreak’s center, and China has made no obvious moves to respond to offers of help to fight the virus from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Tsai won re-election by a landslide in January, pledging to stand up to Beijing. China believes she wants to push for formal independence for the island, which it claims as its own. Tsai denies that, saying Taiwan is already an independent nation called the Republic of China, its official name.
In the last month, Taiwan has reported three nearby Chinese air force drills, and in two cases Taiwanese fighter jets scrambled to intercept them.
Two sources familiar with the situation told Reuters that in one instance, a Chinese fighter’s radar locked onto one of the Taiwan aircraft. In combat, that is a precursor to a missile launch.
“This was a very provocative action by China,” said one of the sources, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Taiwan’s air force said it was unaware of the incident, but that it had full knowledge of Chinese military moves near the island.
China’s Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian, answering a question on the recent drills, said Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was “playing with fire” and that any attempt at independence was “doomed to fail”.
China’s actions have provoked anger in Taiwan, which has told Beijing it should focus on fighting the virus.
“Xi Jinping is trying to make the point that he is still in control of the military,” Wang Ting-yu, a member of the Taiwan parliament’s defense committee, told Reuters.
“China is using external problems to relieve domestic pressure.”
Accompanying the military moves has been what Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has called a cyber “war” of fake online news reports from China about the virus.
The fake reports, which Taiwan’s government has quickly refuted, include false claims that the island is covering up the true number of cases – officially at 42 and one death – and that Tsai had been infected.
Globally there are more than 90,000 cases of the virus, most of them in mainland China, where it emerged late last year.
Taiwan says many of the online posts include expressions only used in China, as well as simplified Chinese characters, which are not used on the island.
Taiwan’s Investigation Bureau has also warned that China is trying to undermine trust in factual news – and disrupt disease-control measures – by portraying Taiwan’s official announcements on the outbreak as Chinese-made fake news.
The pressure and online campaigns seem to have had little effect.
A poll last week by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation reported high approval ratings for Tsai’s China policy, as well as high mistrust of the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to control the virus.
Tracking and reporting fake news on the virus outbreak suspected to have links to the “mainland cyber army” has become a top priority for several national security agencies in Taiwan, a security official told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“We have been told to track if the origins are linked to instructions given by the Communist Party, using all possible means,” the official said, adding that authorities had increased scrutiny on online platforms, including chat rooms.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in a statement sent to Reuters, said Taiwan’s DPP was spreading “lies” in its fake news accusations against China and was “inciting hatred” between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
“The DPP continues to politically manipulate the virus,” it said.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel)