A record number of Chinese military jets surveyed the airspace near Taiwan over the weekend, prompting Taiwanese fighters to take off and reinforcing warnings from Beijing that it could eventually use force to take over the island.
The sorties of nearly 80 People’s Liberation Army aircraft on Friday and Saturday, as China celebrated its national holiday, followed a pattern of Beijing testing and Taiwan attrition as it flew over the seas towards the island’s southwest. The most recent flights have stood out for the number and types of aircraft involved, including bombers and anti-submarine aircraft during night intrusions.
The flights do not suggest an imminent threat of war on Taiwan, several analysts said, but reflect Beijing’s increasingly brazen signal that it wants to absorb the autonomous island and will not rule out military means to do so. .
“October 1, China’s national holiday, sends a message about Beijing’s determination to reclaim Taiwan, if necessary by force,” said Adam Ni, an Australian analyst on Chinese military policy based in Germany. “The aim is to assert Beijing’s power and show military strength.”
Taiwan’s National Defense Ministry said peak flights began on Friday when 38 Chinese military aircraft flew over the island’s “Air Defense Identification Zone”, or ADIZ.
The first group of aircraft included two H-6 bombers and 22 fighter jets, according to the Taiwanese ministry. That night, two other H-6 bombers, accompanied by 10 J-16 fighters, flew into the air zone, turned left at the southern end of Taiwan, and headed northeast, parallel to the island’s east coast. , before turning.
On Saturday, 39 Chinese military aircraft – including fighter jets, two antisubmarine aircraft and an early warning and control aircraft – entered the Taiwan area, once again breaking the daily record.
The Taiwan Air Identification Zone dates back to the 1950s, delimiting the airspace where island authorities claim the right to tell arriving planes to identify themselves and specify their destination. 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 concerning,” said Chieh Chung, a 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 Ministry of Defense began regularly publishing records of Chinese military flights into space in September last year. Chinese military planes are entering the area almost daily, and the latest waves have just rocked most of Taiwan’s population. However, island officials seemed more concerned.
“Threatening? Of course,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, said on twitter after the start of the summit transgression on Friday. Responding to questions about Chinese flights, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense said 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, before the Chinese flights jumped. “They want to cut out our ADIZ as much as possible and make it their own operational space”.
The Taiwanese military has responded to the latest Chinese flights by sending their 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 managing to deplete Taiwan at this operational pace,” Zack Cooper, a senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Chinese and regional military issues, said in an interview. “It’s hard for pilots, it uses gas, which is expensive, and these cells: the more you use them, the faster they age. “
The Chinese government said nothing about the thefts, while Chinese state media cited Taiwanese reports that they had set a record.
Flights from China to the Taiwan area usually feature slower anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as combat aircraft, according to files compiled by Gerald C. Brown, a defense analyst in Washington. But this year, according to Brown’s data, the Chinese Air Force has sent bombers more often, an intimidating move, as they are more likely to carry out a full blown attack.
Large-scale night flights also suggested that Chinese pilots honed their skills to fly their J-16 fighter jets in the dark, said Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at the Defense Research Institute. and National Security, based in Taipei, which is backed by the Taiwanese government.
“They are trying to show skill all the time,” said Mr. Su. “They want to show that they can fight in the day and try to strike at night.”
According to the 2020 Pentagon People’s Liberation Army Report, at the end of 2019, China had about 1,500 fighter jets and 450 bombers and attack planes. 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.
Sometimes, 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 an American official and a memorial service for Lee Teng-hui, a former president who completed the transition of Taiwan to democracy and was hated by Beijing for affirming the island’s self-determination.
Aside from China’s National Day, it was difficult to discern a specific reason for the latest spike in flights.
The latest forays came at a traditionally sensitive time when Taiwan was preparing to celebrate its national holiday on 10 October. And they came as Western countries expressed growing support for Taiwan, particularly for its recent request to join a major regional free trade pact. A delegation from the French Senate will begin a visit to Taiwan on Monday.
Beijing, which is fraught with anything that gives Taiwan the appearance of sovereign nation status, has expressed opposition to both the offer 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 deputy for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. and national defense.
“For Taiwan, we are well prepared for this type of harassment,” Wang added. “We don’t like our people, but we don’t even care.”
Vivian Wang and Amy Chang Chien contributed to the report.
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