Mass incursions by Chinese aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) appear to have entered a new phase after Beijing sent a total of 39 warplanes near the self-ruled island on Saturday, setting a record for the second straight day and raising tensions to fresh highs.
Chinese aircraft conducted 19 flights near the territory during rare overnight sorties, adding to 20 reported earlier in the day, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said early Sunday. Those flights came a day after the Chinese military sent a total of 38 warplanes to the area — including nuclear-capable H-6 bombers — as Beijing marked the country’s National Day.
The Taiwanese Defense Ministry said it had sent combat aircraft to warn away the Chinese aircraft, while missile systems had been deployed to monitor them.
An ADIZ is not the same as territorial airspace, and Taiwan’s overlaps with part of China’s own zone, including parts of the country’s mainland.
In an apparent attempt to probe and wear down the island’s military, Beijing has sent warplanes into the ADIZ at a near-daily clip in the years since the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen won the Taiwanese presidency in 2016.
But large-scale incursions such as those on Friday and Saturday had been rare until recently. Now, large numbers of Chinese warplanes are routinely conducting operations in the vicinity of Taiwan, stoking fears they may be training for a conflict.
Taiwan has said that last month Chinese military aircraft, including bombers, fighters and reconnaissance planes, had entered its ADIZ 117 times — a record monthly figure. The total number this year has already exceeded the estimated 380 flights in 2020, with nearly 600 as of Saturday. Prior to Friday and Saturday’s incursions, the previous single-day record had been 28 sorties set in mid-June.
Many of these incursions, however, have been directly or implicitly tied to events that have angered China, including a flight of 24 warplanes into the ADIZ last month after Taiwan applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
On Saturday, Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang delivered scathing criticism of the flights as the country seeks to rally international support against China’s moves.
“China has been bellicose and damaging regional peace while engaging in many bullying acts,” local media quoted Su as saying. “It’s evident that the world, the international community, rejects such behavior by China more and more.”
Beijing views Taiwan as a so-called core issue and as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.
Experts say China’s military pressure on Taiwan serves multiple purposes and interests.
“It stresses Taiwan’s force, tests the (Taiwanese Air Force) response time, warns the DPP not to cross Beijing’s red lines, and provides opportunities for … training,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Euan Graham, a Singapore-based Asia security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while the recent moves were a war of psychological attrition, “an accelerating build-up of such intimidatory activity could also give (the) PLA an element of surprise” if China were to move against Taiwan “for real one day.”
China’s actions against the island have also prompted international calls for maintaining “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait, including in a Group of Seven communique in June. Its moves also garnered the first mention of Taiwan in more than 50 years in a joint Japan-U.S. leaders’ statement earlier this year.
Although Taiwan and Japan do not have formal diplomatic ties, the two sides have long maintained a robust relationship that includes economic and cultural exchanges. But in recent months, that relationship has grown even closer as Tokyo becomes far more vocal in the public sphere about its concerns over China’s assertiveness, especially its actions near the self-ruled island, which sits just 120 km from Okinawa Prefecture’s Yonaguni Island.
In the highest-profile remarks by a Japanese official on the issue to date, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso signaled in July that Tokyo would consider a Chinese invasion of Taiwan an existential threat to its security, allowing Japan to help defend the island with the United States.
Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, considers the self-ruled island a key partner and crucial line of defense as the Chinese military continues to push further into the western Pacific. Although it no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, the U.S. is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself, according to the Taiwan Relations Act.
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