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TAIPEI: Taiwan scrambled fighter jets Friday as the Chinese military conducted exercises near the Taiwan Strait during a rare visit by a high-ranking US diplomat to the self-ruled island. According to Taipei's defence ministry, 18 Chinese aircraft - including bombers and fighters - entered Taiwan's southwest air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and also crossed the so-called median line that divides the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan's military "scrambled fighters, and deployed its air defence missile system to monitor the activities", the ministry said. The exercises came after Keith Krach, US undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, landed in Taipei on Thursday for a three-day visit, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit in 40 years.

China's Communist leadership baulks at any recognition of Taiwan - which has been ruled separately from China since the end of a civil war in 1949 - and has pursued a decades-long policy of marginalising the democratic island. Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory, to be absorbed into the Chinese mainland - by force if necessary.

Relations between the United States and China are also at their lowest point in decades, with the two sides clashing over a range of trade, military and security issues as well as the coronavirus pandemic. At a press conference Friday, a Chinese defence ministry spokesman said Beijing was "holding actual combat exercises near the Taiwan Strait" when asked how it would respond to Krach's visit.

"This is a legitimate and necessary action taken to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to the current situation in the Taiwan Strait," Ren Guoqiang told reporters.