2021-10-03 08:25:08 In a Surge of Military Flights, China Tests and Warns Taiwan

In a Surge of Military Flights, China Tests and Warns Taiwan

Over the weekend, a record number of Chinese military planes probed the airspace near Taiwan, prompting Taiwanese fighter jets to scramble and adding weight to Beijing’s warnings that it may eventually use force to take control of the island.

The sorties by nearly 80 People’s Liberation Army aircraft on Friday and Saturday, as China observed its National Day holiday, continued Beijing’s pattern of testing and wearing down Taiwan by flying over seas southwest of the island. The most recent flights were notable for the number and variety of planes involved, which included bombers and anti-submarine planes on nighttime intrusions.

According to several analysts, the flights did not indicate an imminent threat of war over Taiwan, but they did reflect Beijing’s increasingly unabashed signaling that it wants to absorb the self-ruled island and will not rule out military means to do so.

“It sends a message about Beijing’s determination to claim Taiwan, by force if necessary,” said Adam Ni, an Australian analyst of Chinese military policy based in Germany. “The goal is to assert Beijing’s power and demonstrate military might.”

The increase in flights began on Friday, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, when 38 Chinese military planes flew into the island’s “air defense identification zone,” or ADIZ.

According to the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense, the first group of aircraft included two H-6 bombers and 22 fighter jets. That night, two more H-6 bombers, accompanied by ten J-16 fighters, flew into the air zone, turned left off Taiwan’s southern tip, and headed northeast, parallel to the island’s eastern coast, before returning.

On Saturday, 39 Chinese military planes, including fighter jets, two anti-submarine aircraft, and an early-warning-and-control plane, flew into Taiwanese airspace, breaking the daily record for the second time.

Taiwan’s air identification zone dates back to the 1950s, and it defines the airspace in which the island’s authorities assert the right to require entering planes to identify themselves and their purpose. It covers a much larger area than Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, which extends only 12 nautical miles from the island’s coast. The Chinese flights did not fly over that country’s airspace.

“It is very concerning,” said Chieh Chung, a security analyst with Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation in Taipei. “This puts a lot more pressure on our military, and the further they get into our airspace, the more likely an accident will occur.”

In September of last year, Taiwan’s defense ministry began routinely releasing records of Chinese military flights into space. Chinese military planes are now flying into the zone almost every day, and the latest waves have barely ruffled the feathers of most Taiwanese. Officials on the island, on the other hand, sounded more concerned.

“Threatening? “Of course,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, responded on Twitter after the surge in intrusions began on Friday. In response to questions about the Chinese flights, Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Sunday that it was “maintaining vigilance and responding appropriately to ensure national security.”

“Taiwan faces an overwhelming military threat,” Mr. Wu said last week in a speech to the Hoover Institution, prior to the increase in Chinese flights. “They want to cut into our ADIZ as much as possible and make it their own operational space.”

Taiwan’s military reacted to the latest Chinese flights by sending its own fighter jets into the air to monitor, but not engage, the planes. Experts say the strain of responding to China’s regular incursions is wearing on Taiwanese pilots and aircraft, and it may be affecting the island’s overall vigilance.

“What I think is clear is that they are having some success wearing down Taiwan with this operational tempo,” said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Chinese and regional military issues. “It’s hard on the pilots, it uses expensive gas, and these airframes — the more you use them, the faster they age.”

The Chinese government has made no comment about the flights, though official Chinese news outlets cited Taiwanese reports that they had set a record.

According to records compiled by Gerald C. Brown, a defense analyst in Washington, China’s flights into the Taiwanese zone typically include slower-moving reconnaissance and antisubmarine aircraft, as well as fighter jets. However, according to Mr. Brown’s data, the Chinese air force has sent bombers more frequently this year — an intimidating step because they are more likely to carry out a real attack.

The large-scale night flights also suggested that Chinese pilots had honed their abilities to fly their J-16 fighter jets in darkness, according to Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at Taiwan’s government-backed Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.

“They are attempting to demonstrate all-weather capability,” Mr. Su explained. “They want to demonstrate that they can fight battles during the day and strike at night.”

According to the Pentagon’s 2020 report on the People’s Liberation Army, China had around 1,500 fighter jets and 450 bombers and attack planes by the end of 2019. Taiwan possessed 400 fighters but no bombers.

Taiwan’s security is becoming increasingly dependent on the United States, which supplies the majority of its weapons. The United States could intervene in an attempted military takeover of Taiwan under a 1979 law, but it is not required to do so.

China’s flights into Taiwan’s airspace appear to be a warning in response to specific events at times. Last year, Beijing dispatched 37 warplanes to Taiwan during a two-day period that included a visit to the island by a US official and a memorial service for Lee Teng-hui, a former president who completed Taiwan’s transition to democracy and was despised by Beijing for asserting the island’s self-determination.

Aside from the Chinese National Day, it was difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for the recent increase in flights.

The most recent incursions occurred during a traditionally sensitive period, as Taiwan prepared to observe its own national holiday on October 10. And they came at a time when Western countries have been increasingly supportive of Taiwan, including its recent application to join a major regional free trade agreement. A delegation from the French Senate is set to arrive in Taiwan on Monday.

Beijing, which is opposed to anything that gives Taiwan the appearance of being a sovereign nation, has spoken out against both the application and the visit.

“The Chinese government is attempting to draw a red line for the international community, warning them not to support Taiwan,” said Wang Ting-yu, a foreign affairs and national defense committee member from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“We are well prepared in Taiwan for this type of harassment,” Mr. Wang added. “Our people don’t like it, but we’re not worried about it.”

Amy Chang Chien and Vivian Wang contributed reporting.

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In a Surge of Military Flights, China Tests and Warns Taiwan