The Chinese air force's record number of flights around Taiwan is really a message to the world, experts say

  • Chinese air force aircraft entered Taiwan's air-defense identification zone on 91 days from January to November, according to a Taipei-based think tank.
  • Analysts say Beijing's strategy is more about sending a message to the US and the world than it is an attempt to wear down the Taiwanese military and public.
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Beijing made a record number of incursions into Taiwan's air defence identification zone last year, but analysts say the hawkish strategy is more a signal to the world than a threat to the island's resolve.

The Chinese air force flew over 380 sorties that entered the island's ADIZ on a record 91 days from January to November, according to a Taiwanese government-funded report released last week by the Taipei-based Institute for National Defence and Security Research.

It said the increased frequency of flights was in response to closer Taiwan-US relations and worsening US-China ties."2020 was an extremely busy and compact year for the PLA [People's Liberation Army]," the report said. "The continuous deterioration of US-China relations and the warming of Taiwan-US relations have further affected the trilateral relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan, causing the PLA to significantly increase its military activities in the Taiwan Strait."

Shih Shun-wen, a spokesman for Taiwan's defence ministry, on Tuesday said the incursions "pose a threat to regional and our national security."

The PLA aircraft targeted the area "to test our military's response, to exert pressure on our aerial defence and to squeeze the aerial space for our activities," Shih added.

The 234-page report is issued annually by the Taipei think tank and reviews Beijing's political, military and societal attitudes towards Taiwan.

An ADIZ is the airspace above and surrounding a territory in which it will seek to identify and control civilian aircraft. Although they are declared unilaterally and are not upheld by international law, flying military aircraft into another territory's ADIZ is generally considered an act of aggression.

"The intensity of military intimidation against Taiwan has reached its highest point in nearly 20 years," said the report.

It said Taiwan's air force had dispatched 2,972 missions to monitor its ADIZ in 2020, costing a total of NT$25.5 billion (US$907.5 million).

But analysts said the incursions were more likely a signal to the US and the world than an attempt to exhaust the Taiwanese military and public, whose resolve was only strengthened by the threats.

"I don't think Beijing is trying to wear down Taiwan's air force," said Zhang Baohui, from Lingnan University's department of political science. "More likely its air activities seek to signal resolve and enhance deterrence."

Aging anti-landing barricades on a beach on the Taiwanese island of Little Kinmen, only a few miles from China, April 20, 2018.(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

In 2020, the US sent high-ranking government officials to Taiwan and authorised the sale of weapons to the self-ruled island. Zhang said Beijing was worried that the Donald Trump administration's efforts to upgrade relations with Taiwan might embolden it to move towards declaring independence.

The report noted that incursions frequently happened soon after Taiwan held diplomatic exchanges. It said the most severe incursion, during which Chinese aircraft crossed the median line — a tacitly agreed division down the middle of the Taiwan Strait — occurred after US official Keith Krach visited the island.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, chair of Hong Kong Baptist University's department of government and international studies, said Washington had passed a number of Taiwan-related acts that made Beijing increasingly wary, such as the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 enabling high-level visits between the two sides.

He said the ADIZ incursions were a new and aggressive way for Beijing to register its displeasure.

"Now Beijing is pushing its envelope for the first time actually," he said, noting that Beijing wanted Taipei to recognise the 1992 consensus stating that the two sides agree that there is only one China.

"There is a warning to the incoming administration not to push too far in upgrading relations with Taiwan," he said.

According to the report, nearly 90% of incursions in 2020 took place in the southwest of Taiwan's ADIZ. In previous years most were in the western Pacific. It said the shift in focus could be due to Beijing's efforts to create "invisible pressure" on the defences of Taiwanese-controlled islands in the South China Sea.

Taiwan air force ground crew run to a US-made F-16V fighter for an emergency takeoff during a military exercise in Chiayi County, southern Taiwan, January 15, 2020.AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Cabestan said Beijing had touted the idea of setting up its own ADIZ over the South China Sea in 2012, but the latest signals were that it felt such an undertaking would be too difficult. For now, he said, sending planes into Taiwan's southwestern ADIZ was an attempt "to kill two birds with one stone" — sending a message and training its pilots to fly over the Taiwanese-controlled Pratas Islands.

The report noted that most aircraft sent on the incursions were anti-submarine and reconnaissance planes, and the flights allowed Beijing to assess Taiwanese and US defences in the region.

According to Chong Ja Ian, from National University of Singapore's department of political science, although the incursions had hardened Taiwanese resolve against Beijing, they were a "low cost, highly flexible and highly visible" way for China to signal its regional ambitions.

He said that, beyond aircraft wear and tear, the effect on Taiwan's military was limited as air forces needed to send fighter jets up regularly to maintain combat readiness.

"What the PRC [People's Republic of China] patrols can do is demonstrate that it is in a position to project force over Taiwan and the South China Sea," Chong said.

"It shows that China is a major power and this is its area," he added.

He said Beijing may also be trying to lull Taiwan into a false sense of security. "If the Taiwan side sees PLA aircraft appearing regularly, they may be less wary, less on their guard, which would put the PLA at an advantage if it starts off any action," he said.

A Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter jet lands on a closed section of highway.Wally Santana/AP

The report noted that the economic and political means available to China to force its will on Taiwan had become more limited in the past year as Taiwanese and global public opinion hardened against it. Military intimidation, it said, "has become the simplest and most convenient method the Chinese Communist Party can use".

Analysts agreed that China's military threats were likely to continue this year but escalation into conflict was highly unlikely.

Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the chances of Beijing pushing too hard and triggering a conflict were a "long shot" but that pressure would remain.

"I think we should expect that China will continue to increase pressure on Taiwan, short of military action," he said. "China is on a roll, so to speak, when it comes to regional aggression, and Taiwan is very high – perhaps highest – on its list."

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