The increasing number of air force incursions from China is starting to fray nerves among ordinary Taiwanese, who wonder if their heavily armed political rival finally plans to attack after decades of threats, polls and analysts say.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has increased the frequency and number of flights over a median line between the two Asian neighbors in the past four months, according to reports from Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense.
Eighteen Chinese military aircraft passed through Taiwan’s airspace Friday followed by 19 on Saturday, the ministry said. Saturday the planes flew in a formation designed to attack from the front, rear and both sides. Some aircraft were sighted in Taiwanese airspace over waters about 80 kilometers from Taiwan itself, according to maps posted on local news websites.
In response, Taiwan’s defense ministry says the island has the right “to self-defense and to counterattack.”
"As the Communist military has proactively developed military preparations in recent days and its ability to attack Taiwan keeps growing, the Taiwan army has set up its harshest battle scenario during its Han Kuang computer-simulated exercises to handle the new developments and new threats," Taiwan's defense ministry said in a statement Monday. Part of the annual Han Kuang exercises took place last week in Taiwan.
Movements cause 'anxiety'
“I don’t think that the general public is psychologically prepared for a true, realistic military conflict,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
China’s warplane movements cause “anxiety,” said Wu Yi-hsuan, 29, a Taiwanese doctoral student. “The Chinese military seems to make turbulence and watch our ability to react,” said Wu, who worries that as a male citizen he might eventually be summoned for military duty.
A Yahoo poll, as of early September, had found that 64% of Taiwanese worry about a conflict, 33.5% are unconcerned and the rest have no view.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which has been self-ruled since the 1940s when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists and rebased in Taipei. China has never renounced the threat of force, if needed, to unite the two sides.
Beijing’s air force began flying planes occasionally near Taiwan after Tsai Ing-wen took office as president in Taiwan and rejected Beijing’s condition for dialogue – that both sides identify as part of China. Military analysts believe China also has land-based missiles aimed at Taiwan.
"Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing Monday. "The so-called mid-line of the Strait does not exist."
Most Taiwanese oppose uniting with China, government surveys in Taipei found in 2019.
'Have this kind of illusion'
But a lot of people’s fears are muted by perceptions that China is just sending a political signal, analysts say. Some citizens expect Taiwan’s armed forces could protect them or that the U.S. military will fight for Taiwan if the island is attacked by China.
According to Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll in August, just 41% of Taiwanese people were afraid of Chinese military exercises.
“Taiwanese people now have this kind of illusion,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“One is to say that the People’s Liberation Army won’t attack anyway, and that United States would defend Taiwan,” he said. “These are different conditions, but on the contrary there’s a big proportion of Taiwanese who think that’s the way it is.”
The U.S. government is not legally bound to fight for Taiwan, but it sells advanced weaponry and passes naval ships through the ocean strait separating the island from China. Washington is now ready to sign a $7 billion arms deal with Taiwan, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.
Officials in Beijing are particularly angered when the militarily stronger United States shows support for Taiwan. Last week, as the planes flew, U.S. Undersecretary of State Keith Krach was on a visit to Taiwan. China flew fighter planes over the median line too in August when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar traveled to Taiwan.
Still, the U.S. government recognizes China diplomatically over Taiwan despite a growing list of political, trade and legal issues with Beijing during the presidency of Donald Trump.
'A predictable and expected reaction'
The details of China’s flights near the median line with Taiwan suggests that the PLA is not planning an assault, the strategic studies professor said. For that reason, he said, people don’t take the maneuvers too “seriously.”
He pointed toward the United States instead. “I think it’s a predictable and an expected reaction from the Chinese to show their attitude and to show that they are extremely unhappy about the increase of U.S.-Taiwan engagement in a more official fashion,” Alexander Huang said.
China’s military ranks third in the world, compared to Taiwan’s at No. 26, the GlobalFirePower.com database says. For now, at least, Taiwanese believe their own armed forces have a grip on the Chinese aircraft movement, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan. Taiwan’s air force normally scrambles its own planes when China’s come close.
“There (is) a lot of talk about Chinese intimidation over Taiwan and so forth, but I think the people still very much put trust in the national defense,” Yang said. “They are pretty much in control.”