A record number of Chinese military jets surveyed the airspace near Taiwan over the weekend, prompting Taiwanese fighter jets to scramble and reinforcing warnings from Beijing that it could ultimately use force to sideline it. seize the island.
The sorties by nearly 80 People’s Liberation Army planes on Friday and Saturday, as China celebrated its national day, followed a pattern of Beijing testing and wearing out Taiwan as it flew over the seas to the southwest of the island. The most recent flights stood out for the number and types of aircraft involved, including bombers and anti-submarine planes during nighttime intrusions.
The flights do not suggest an imminent threat of war on Taiwan, several analysts have said, but they do reflect Beijing’s increasingly brazen signal that it wants to absorb the autonomous island and will not exclude military means to do so. .
“Coming on October 1, China’s national day, it sends a message about Beijing’s determination to claim Taiwan, by force if necessary,” said Adam Ni, an Australian analyst on Chinese military policy based in Germany. “The purpose of this is to assert Beijing’s power and show military strength.”
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the spike in flights began on Friday, when 38 Chinese military planes flew over the island’s “air defense identification zone,” or ADIZ.
The first group of planes included two H-6 bombers and 22 fighter jets, according to the Taiwanese ministry. That night, two more H-6 bombers, accompanied by 10 J-16 fighters, flew over the air zone, turned left at the southern end of Taiwan and headed northeast, parallel to the east coast of the island, before turning around.
On Saturday, 39 Chinese military planes – including fighter jets, two anti-submarine planes and an early warning and control aircraft – entered the Taiwanese area, again breaking the daily record.
Taiwan’s aerial identification zone dates back to the 1950s, defining the airspace where island authorities claim the right to tell incoming planes to identify themselves and determine their objective. It is an area much larger than Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, which reaches 12 nautical miles from its coast. Chinese flights did not enter this sovereign airspace.
“This is very worrying,” said Chieh Chung, security analyst at the National Policy Foundation in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. “It puts a lot more pressure on our military, and the more they enter our airspace, the greater the risk of an accident.”
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry began to regularly publish records of Chinese military flights into space in September last year. Chinese military planes are now entering the area almost daily, and the latest waves have barely shaken most of the people of Taiwan. Officials on the island seemed more worried, however.
“Threatening? Of course,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, said on twitter after the start of the trespassing peak on Friday. Responding to questions about Chinese flights, the Taiwanese defense ministry said on Sunday that it “maintains a high degree of vigilance and responds appropriately to ensure national security.”
“Taiwan faces an overwhelming military threat,” Wu said in a speech to the Hoover Institution last week, ahead of the Chinese flight surge. “They want to cut out our ADIZ as much as possible and make it their own operating space.”
The Taiwanese military responded to the latest Chinese flights by sending its own fighter jets into the air to monitor, but not confront, the planes. The pressure to respond to regular intrusions from China is weighing on Taiwanese pilots and planes, and this could affect the island’s overall vigilance, experts said.
“What I think is clear is that they are succeeding in exhausting Taiwan with this operational tempo,” Zack Cooper, senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Chinese and regional military issues, said in an interview. “It’s tough on pilots, it uses gas, which is expensive, and these cells – the more you use them, the faster they get old. “
The Chinese government has not said anything about the thefts, while Chinese state media cited Taiwanese reports that they had set a record.
China’s flights into the Taiwanese area typically feature slower reconnaissance and anti-submarine planes, as well as fighter jets, according to records compiled by Washington defense analyst Gerald C. Brown. But this year, according to data from Mr Brown, the Chinese Air Force sent bombers more often – an intimidating move, as they could more likely carry out a full-blown attack.
Large-scale night flights also suggested that Chinese pilots had honed their abilities to fly their J-16 fighter jets in the dark, said Su Tzu-yun, senior analyst at the Defense Research Institute. and National Security, based in Taipei, which is supported by the Taiwanese government.
“They are trying to show ability all the time,” Mr. Su said. “They want to show that they can fight by day and try to strike at night.”
At the end of 2019, China had around 1,500 fighter jets and 450 bombers and attack planes, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 People’s Liberation Army report. Taiwan had 400 fighters and no bombers.
Taiwan’s security increasingly depends on the United States, which supplies most of its weapons. Under a 1979 law, the United States could intervene in an attempted military takeover of Taiwan, but it is not obligated to do so.
At times, flights from China into the Taiwan Air Zone appear to be a warning in response to specific events. Last year, Beijing sent 37 fighter jets to Taiwan over 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 the transition of Taiwan towards democracy and was hated by Beijing. to affirm the self-determination of the island.
Apart from the Chinese National Day, it was difficult to discern a specific reason for the last peak in flights.
The latest forays came during a traditionally sensitive time as Taiwan prepared to celebrate its own national holiday on October 10. And they came as Western countries expressed growing support for Taiwan, including its recent request to join a major regional free trade pact. On Monday, a delegation from the French Senate is due to begin a visit to Taiwan.
Beijing, which bristles with anything that gives Taiwan the appearance of sovereign nation status, has expressed opposition to both the bid and the visit.
“The Chinese government is trying to draw a red line for the international community by warning it not to support Taiwan,” said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker with the ruling Progressive Democratic Party in Taiwan and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. and national defense.
“For Taiwan, we are well prepared for this kind of harassment,” Wang added. “Our people, we don’t like it, but we don’t care either.”
Vivian Wang and Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.