Top U.S. Official in Taiwan Says China Military Flights 'Not Acceptable'

The most senior American official in Taiwan says the United States has "strongly encouraged" China to stop its frequent military flights near the island.

Sandra Oudkirk, director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei, said the activity risked "miscalculation" between the governments across the Taiwan Strait, the narrow body of water that separates democratic Taiwan from the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Oudkirk, who is the first woman to hold the role of AIT director, began her three-year tenure in July. Her remarks came during an otherwise casual interview published Monday by Taiwanese YouTuber Ray Du, whose channel publishes English educational material.

Taiwanese defense officials told local lawmakers before Christmas the number of Chinese warplane sorties into Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ)—in international airspace about 100 to 150 miles southwest of the island—had reached more than 940 since January. The flights now total 961 as of December 28, with an additional five Chinese military planes detected inside the ADIZ on the day, according to Taiwan's Defense Ministry

U.S. Official in Taiwan Criticizes China Intimidation
Sandra Oudkirk meets Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, on August 10, 2021, shortly after her appointment as director of the American Institute in Taiwan. In an interview that aired on December 27, 2021, Oudkirk said the United States had “strongly encouraged” China to stop its military flights near the island. Makoto Lin/Office of the President, Taiwan

Asked about the escalating activity—meant to intimidate Taiwan and put off the U.S., too—Oudkirk said: "We believe that those air incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone are destabilizing. They run the risk of miscalculation."

"We have strongly encouraged the PRC to stop doing that," she told Du, stressing that the U.S. has also been outspoken about Beijing's actions in the South China Sea.

"I think the best way to hold the PRC, or really any country, accountable is for the international community to come together and to speak with one voice, and to say this is not acceptable," she said. Oudkirk's answer spoke to the Joe Biden administration's broader strategy of rallying allies around issues of global concern, including peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait—a fact not lost on the Chinese leadership.

U.S. Official in Taiwan Criticizes China Intimidation
Sandra Oudkirk, then U.S. senior official for APEC and deputy assistant secretary for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, visits Taiwanese President Taiwan Ing-wen at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, on October 9, 2019. Oudkirk, now director of the American Institute in Taiwan, said in an interview that aired on December 27, 2021, that the United States had “strongly encouraged” China to stop its military flights near the island. Wang Yu Ching/Office of the President, Taiwan

She also emphasized the agency of the Taiwanese people in any decision about the island's political future, a topic that has been spotlighted amid a high-profile tussle for primacy between Washington and Beijing.

"I think it's really important that the PRC understand the people of Taiwan have a thriving democracy and want to have a voice, and need to have a voice, in their own future," said Oudkirk, whose diplomatic career included an earlier posting to Taipei in the 1990s. "The people of Taiwan have over many decades built a lifestyle and society based on this democracy," she said.

AIT was established more than four decades ago under provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, the legislation—supported by then Delaware Sen. Biden in 1979—that remains at the heart of U.S.-Taiwan relations today. The institute's counterpart in Washington is known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, or TECRO.

China's 961 military aircraft sorties around Taiwan are nearly triple the 380 flights detected by Taipei in 2020. The actions have alarmed not only the U.S., but also regional allies including Japan and Australia.

Taiwan's air force has scrambled jets to intercept at least 1,131 Chinese warplanes since the Taiwanese Defense Ministry began publishing ADIZ incursion data in September 2020.