China bans individual Taiwan visits

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BEIJING (AP) -- China said Wednesday it was banning trips by individual Chinese travelers to Taiwan, citing the current state of relations with the democratically governed island, in what appears to be another move to increase financial and diplomatic pressure on the island to force it to endorse Beijing's position that Taiwan is Chinese territory.

The one-sentence notice Wednesday from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said such trips would be suspended from Thursday "in light of the current relations between the two sides." It said nothing about suspending trips by Chinese as members of tour groups.

China had only permitted individual travel to Taiwan by residents of 47 major cities. All others had to apply for permission through selected travel agencies and travel on group tours.

It's unclear what effect the move would have on the Taiwanese tourism industry, which also draws large numbers of visitors from South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, attracted by its many beaches, lush mountains and famed street food.

China cut off all contact with the independence-leaning government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wei shortly after her 2016 election and has discouraged tourism while working to poach away Taiwan's handful of remaining diplomatic allies and block its participation at international gatherings. The reduction in group tours had sparked appeals for government assistance from those working at the lower spectrum of the travel industry.

China has also ratcheted up its threat to annex Taiwan by military force, prompting the island's armed forces this week to hold two days of live-fire drills coinciding with Chinese military exercises on the mainland coast facing the island.

Taiwan's defense ministry said the drills at the Jiuping base in the southernmost county of Pingtung included testing 12 types of missiles with ranges of up to 155 miles, long enough to reach targets in the mainland interior.

Ministry Deputy Chief of Staff Li Chao Ming said Tuesday a total of 117 projectiles were fired with an accuracy rate of more than 95% but declined to identify the missiles by name. Two of the air force's F-16 fighter jets also fired AGM-Harpoon missiles that hit a pair of decommissioned landing ships, Li said.

Taiwan's largest annual Han Kuang drills held in May featured indigenously developed weapons including the Sky Bow I and Sky Bow II air defense missiles and the Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile. Taiwan relies on a layered defensive posture that includes attacking invading forces at sea, in the air, and as they attempt to land along a very limited section of coastline suitable for such an operation.

China's state media said the mainland's forces are holding four days of drills through Thursday along the coasts of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, which face the democratically governed island. Few details have been given, although footage carried by state broadcaster CCTV showed missiles being fired and beaches being assaulted by amphibious tanks and landing craft, along with interviews with officers from the 74th Group Army based in the southern province of Guangzhou.

China's People's Liberation Army is not a national army but rather the military branch of the ruling Communist Party and at a reception to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of the PLA's founding, which is Thursday, minister of national defense Wei Fenghe vowed the armed forces would always uphold the party's "absolute leadership."

"There is only one China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Wei as saying, pledging that the PLA will "firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity."

China has been alarmed by signs of increased military support for Taiwan from the U.S., which despite lacking formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, is bound by law to ensure the island has a credible defense against attack.

The State Department earlier in July approved a potential sale of $2.2 billion in arms to Taiwan, including Abrams tanks and Stinger missiles. Members of Congress have 30 days to object to the sale but are unlikely to do so given the strong bipartisan support the island enjoys in the body and anti-China sentiment.

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