China has stepped up its military posturing around Taiwan over the past week, a trend that is set to fuel growing concerns that Beijing might move closer to attacking the island.
Taiwan and Japan on Monday both reported incursions into their respective air defence identification zones, the first simultaneous announcement from Taipei and Tokyo.
Taiwan said that ten Chinese military aircraft, including fighters and an anti-submarine warfare aircraft, had flown into its ADIZ, while Japan recorded an ASW plane inside its zone just east of Taiwan.
The parallel manoeuvres followed the largest-ever incursion into Taiwan’s air defence zone last Friday, when 20 Chinese aircraft, including bombers and fighters, entered the area.
The forays came as Washington has begun to ready for the growing risk of a war over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its sovereign territory. Senior US officials fear that China is flirting with the idea of seizing control of Taiwan, a scenario that would almost certainly drag in Washington and some of its allies.
Monday’s incursions also followed the arrival in Taiwan of the US ambassador to Palau, alongside the Pacific island nation’s president. Palau is one of 15 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taipei rather than Beijing, and the visit was an unusually bold move compared with the restraint Washington has long practised with regard to sending its diplomats to Taiwan.
Friday’s manoeuvres came after the US and Taiwan announced an agreement under which their coast guards would co-operate.
Some experts interpreted the Chinese military’s moves as a gradual step-up but agreed that the manoeuvres also featured new patterns of behaviour.
The People’s Liberation Army has flown more regular sorties into the south-western corner of Taiwan’s air defence zone, where the Taiwan Strait meets the Bashi Channel, since last summer. This is a crucial corridor for the Chinese military into the open waters and airspace of the western Pacific.
The territory would be essential for submarine warfare in any conflict over Taiwan, which explains why anti-submarine warfare aircraft have been involved in most of the almost-daily incursions. But while the forays usually consisted of short, straight flights in and out of the ADIZ, ASW aircraft flew all the way past the southern tip of Taiwan into the western Pacific and back over the past week.
“These latest [incursions] are more about political messaging than about military operational significance,” said Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, former chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s armed forces. “Flying around Taiwan is not a breakthrough for them. They operated circular flights with H6 bombers when I was in office.”
“I believe that this time, they did not have enough time to prepare,” Lee added. “So in order to express their determination towards the US, they flew out into the western Pacific but did not do a full circle.”
Some analysts, however, saw the latest moves as an escalation.
“Y-8 and Y-9 aircraft have not done this before,” said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a think-tank backed by Taiwan’s defence ministry, referring to the ASW flights. “We are going to see more of that as they start to expand the scope of their regular operations from the south-west of Taiwan to the south-east.”
The incursion reported by Japan also followed an unprecedented approach. A patrol aircraft and a surveillance plane flew in a northern direction off Taiwan’s east coast before turning back and leaving Japan’s ADIZ through the Miyako Strait, Tokyo said.
The Miyako Islands, a tiny archipelago between Okinawa and Taiwan, have been a hotspot for Chinese air force manoeuvres in recent years because the Strait — as with the Bashi Channel — is one of the PLA’s main air and sea corridors to the open Pacific. Four of the five Chinese air incursions reported by Japan over the past year have occurred in this area.
In previous manoeuvres, Chinese aircraft flew only relatively short sorties to the south-east of the Miyako Islands before turning back. Monday’s flights marked the first time they had flown so close to Taiwan’s east coast, where the largest hardened shelters for protecting military aircraft against missile and air attacks are located in a mountainside in the town of Hualien.
“With its regular operations in the south-western corner of Taiwan ADIZ, the PLA has already changed the status quo and asserted that ‘This is my backyard’. They have even included this area in their annual training plan,” said Lee.
People familiar with Taipei’s military strategy said if the PLA expanded a regular presence to the airspace east of Taiwan, it would undermine the island’s security in a much more drastic manner.