China’s record number of incursions of warplanes into Taiwan’s defense zone over the past four days plays to Beijing’s military strengths while sending potent messages both at home and far beyond the self-governed island, Western analysts say.
A mix of nearly 150 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighter jets, nuclear-capable bombers, anti-submarine aircraft and airborne early warning and control planes have entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since Friday, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.
While the Chinese flights have not come close to what Taiwan considers its sovereign airspace – 12 nautical miles from its coastlines – they have entered an area, the ADIZ, where Taipei says it will respond to any incursion.
This can be done via radio warnings, anti-aircraft missile tracking or fighter jet intercepts.
On Monday, when the PLAAF sent the largest number of warplanes – 56 – into Taiwan’s ADIZ since the island began publicly reporting such activities last year, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said radio warnings were issued and air defense missile systems were deployed to monitor the activity.
At no time during the surge of Chinese flights has it been suggested that actual combat was imminent, but the Western analysts say China is able to make several points without firing a shot in anger.
“This is a well-thought-out program from Beijing, meant to be carried out over months and years, with several interrelated goals,” said Jacob Stokes, a fellow in the Indo-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security.
“The first is political-military signaling to try to intimidate the government in Taiwan and exert China’s claim to the self-governing island,” Stokes said.
“The second is getting PLA pilots and associated military support personnel experience conducting these types of operations under different conditions (such as at night), which will increase their capability to fight if called upon to do so,” he said.
“The third is to force Taiwan’s military to scramble aircraft in response, which helps wear out Taiwan’s smaller air force and pilots,” Stokes said.
Other analysts say the PLA is also showing friends of Taiwan – specifically the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom – it will not back down in the face of their support for Taipei.
They also say extensive coverage of the flights in domestic Chinese media is designed to shore up support for Beijing’s campaign to bring Taiwan under its control.
Let’s break those five points down in relation to the record surge in flights:
What is Taiwan doing that angers China?
Taiwan and mainland China have been governed separately since the end of a civil war more than seven decades ago, in which the defeated Nationalists fled to Taipei.
However, Beijing views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory – even though the Chinese Communist Party has never governed the democratic island of about 24 million people.
And Chinese President Xi Jinping has refused to rule out military force to capture Taiwan if necessary.
According to Lionel Fatton, an Indo-Pacific affairs expert at Webster University in Switzerland, “China needs levers to deter Taiwan from taking undesirable courses of action, especially independence-leaning initiatives.”
Fatton notes the surge in Chinese flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ came after Taipei officially submitted an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) free-trade pact.
It’s the kind of action Beijing will not countenance.
“There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. With regard to the CPTPP, we firmly oppose Taiwan’s accession to any agreement or organisation of official nature,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao said in a tweet on September 23.
Fatton said the increase in PLA flights is Beijing telling Taipei it has the means and firepower to back up that hardline stance. It’s a classic act of deterrence – show strength before an opponent takes action that will result in an unacceptable cost, he said.
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said Beijing is signaling to Taipei that it can strike anytime it wants. “That is a strong message; one accompanying and reinforcing China’s threatening rhetoric,” he said.
And China will be relentless, Fatton said.
“We can expect China to continue its pressure campaign to make sure its deterrent posture remains strong,” he said.
On Tuesday, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen indicated the island is not about to buckle under pressure.
“Amid almost daily intrusions by the People’s Liberation Army, our position on cross-strait relations remains constant: Taiwan will not bend to pressure, but nor will it turn adventurist, even when it accumulates support from the international community,” Tsai wrote in an op-ed for US magazine Foreign Affairs.
How does this help China gain military experience?
Should Beijing decide on a full military campaign against Taipei, the PLA will need detailed intelligence on what kind of response it will get from Taiwan’s forces.
Sending dozens of warplanes into Taiwan’s ADIZ helps paint that picture for the PLA.
“The PLA is testing and developing an assessment of Taiwan’s ability to detect and willingness to respond to air threats. It is also recording Taiwan’s response times, tactics and air intercept procedures,” Schuster said.
The increasing number of PLA aircraft involved in the Taiwan ADIZ incursions also develops the PLA’s ability to work with the large number of military assets that would likely be deployed in combat.
“Coordinated air operations involving large numbers of aircraft at a large distance is more complicated than small unit operations close to home base,” said Schuster. “The air controller’s view of the battle space is less accurate at 100 nautical miles than it is at 10. Adding aircraft increases that complexity.”
Schuster said, to his knowledge, the latest PLA flights represent the largest concentration of Chinese military aircraft ever operating that far from their home bases.
So it’s possible the large-scale flights could continue. Essentially, the PLA needs the practice.
“The US Air Force and Navy consider it (large-scale exercises) routine but still train for it at least annually. The PLA does not have that experience,” Schuster said.
What about Taiwan’s military assets?
Taipei doesn’t have as many military aircraft as China does, and its fleet is older, too.
If Taipei tries to match the PLA flight for flight, it will find itself in serious trouble, the analysts said.
“Most of Taiwan’s fighter force is nearly 30 years old. Every scramble stresses the air frame. As planes age, they develop fatigue cracks in their air frame structure,” Schuster said.
“China probably is hoping that its incursions may lead Taiwan to choose between imposing maneuvering limits on its fighters or remove them from service for refurbishment,” he said.
But Taiwan may not be rising to the bait, said Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia.
He notes that Taiwan’s military doesn’t use fresh photos of Chinese planes in its news releases on the PLA incursions – it uses file images of Chinese aircraft.
“Taiwan is, however, publishing detailed track data that includes PLAAF aircraft types. This means (Taiwan’s military) can identity aircraft type by non-visual means, that is long-range electronic means,” he said.
What are the messages for Taiwan’s friends?
Past instances of larger incursions of PLA flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ have come after nations that support Taipei have done something that angers Beijing.
For instance, an incursion of 25 PLA planes in April came a day after the US secretary of state warned Beijing that Washington was committed to the defense of Taiwan.
And a June incursion of 28 PLA warplanes came after the Group of Seven (G7) leaders issued a joint statement scolding China for a series of issues and underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
The past week’s incursions came as the US, Japan, the UK, New Zealand and the Netherlands conducted multilateral naval exercises near Okinawa, just 730 kilometers (453 miles) from Taiwan, according to a statement from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. The exercises involved two US and one British aircraft carrier.
The large-scale Chinese flights, involving dozens of planes, probably had their genesis months ago, Layton said.
“The PLA Air Force has a reputation for preferring well-planned, heavily choreographed activities,” he said.
Months of planning “would allow the plan to be well-developed and practiced several times before this series of major events. Such timings would also ensure the required number of aircraft were serviceable and available,” Layton said.
And in the Chinese military-political hierarchy, mistakes don’t look good, he said.
“The (Communist) Party is risk averse and the party members located at each level of PLAAF command would want to ensure all went well with no problems,” Layton said.
As such, the surge of PLA flights was likely first envisioned “as a muscular display to accompany the anniversary” of China’s founding on October 1, said Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corp. think tank in Washington.
“However, for such a ceremonial event, one day of ‘air parade’ activity would have been sufficient,” Heath said, adding that the naval exercises, the fact Britain recently sent a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait, and a new leadership in Japan considering its future Taiwan policy, all likely played a part in China expanding the flights.
“The deployment of repeated waves of combat air formations is a flexible tool for sending a political signal and a warning to Taiwan and the Western countries,” Heath said.
How are the flights being covered in Chinese media?
Heath said Chinese state media outlets had recently highlighted the October 1 National Day anniversary and “emphatic warnings and threats against Taiwan and warnings to the United States and the West” in both Chinese and English articles.
A look at the website of state-run nationalist tabloid the Global Times on Tuesday shows the importance of the issue to Beijing.
A top-of-the-page story said the PLA flew “a whopping 56 warplanes” into Taiwan’s ADIZ on Monday, adding the move came “a day after the US voiced ‘concern’ over the Chinese mainland’s military activity near the island, claiming it was provocative.”
“The US statement sent a very wrong and irresponsible signal, and China will take all measures necessary to crush any ‘Taiwan independence’ attempts,” the Global Times reported citing the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
An accompanying Global Times editorial, also at the top of the page, said the flights were “a severe warning” to Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against its “secessionist” policies.