Although two flybys in as many days this month by Chinese military planes alarmed Taiwan’s defense ministry, analysts say China was playing more to a wider audience, including the United States and a domestic population worried about an economically destabilizing virus outbreak.
Taiwan’s air force scrambled F-16 jets as Chinese fighters and bombers flew around half of Taiwan Sunday morning after passing through the Luzon Strait and turning north up the island’s east coast, the National Defense Ministry in Taipei said. More aircraft flew past the next day, and one crossed into Taiwan's airspace until Taiwanese F-16s warned them away, the ministry said.
China has used fighters and bombers before to pester Taiwan, the ministry said. This month, Chinese leadership probably wanted to show Beijing-leery Western allies that it’s still strong despite the virus, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in New Taipei City.
"Putting pressure on Taiwan is a side effect,” Huang said. “The current Chinese move, first it wanted to show the world that even with the coronavirus the People’s Liberation Army still have time and capability to do the regular training far away from their coastline,” he added.
New Coronavirus Outbreak
Spread of the new coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, discovered in China in December, began alarming much of the world in late January, prompting multiple countries to block arrivals from China amid fear Beijing’s government was covering up the true extent of the disease. Citizens of other Asian countries have avoided going outside and hoarded nonperishables, out of fear of a larger cross-border outbreak.
Chinese officials repressed information about the virus in December, University of California, Berkeley, School of Information research scientist Xiao Qiang said in a commentary Monday.
"When the true scale of the epidemic finally became clear, Chinese public opinion reflected a predictable mix of anger, anxiety, and despair,” he said.
A show of military power might ease people’s anger onshore and off, scholars say.
"[Chinese President] Xi Jinping has to demonstrate he is still in control, he is still a strong leader in China, even though he is facing tremendous challenges as a result of this virus outbreak,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.
Broader maritime mission
China is increasingly frequently sending naval ships and military aircraft outside its immediate coastal waters to counter U.S. influence in Asia, analysts say. Its growth of a blue-water navy during the past decade represents one example. The latest flybys show China is sticking to a “regular training program” to learn more about certain tracts of sea, Huang said.
China hopes to upgrade training, exercises and patrols in the more distant waters of East Asia, Yang said.
It would also counter the United States and Japan. Those two allies regularly pass ships and planes through Asian waters to keep Chinese expansion in check. Three U.S. aircraft including a pair of B-52 bombers flew close to Taiwan Wednesday after the Chinese aircraft movement, Taiwan’s defense ministry said.
Indirect warning to Taiwan
This month's Chinese flybys still effectively warned Taipei to avoid steps such as declaring legal independence from China, said Shane Lee, a retired political science professor from Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.
They try to scare Taiwan not to do anything that to them is very drastic, like announcing Taiwan independence,” Lee said.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and insists that the two sides eventually unite. President Tsai Ing-wen, who Taiwanese voters elected in 2016 and again in January, opposes Beijing’s idea for a “one country, two systems” form of rule. That system would put Beijing in charge and give Taiwan a degree of local autonomy.
Taiwan’s Republic of China constitution still binds it to China, and Tsai did not declare independence after her reelection last month.
Chinese aircraft flew military planes near Taiwan more than 10 times in Tsai’s first term and crossed a median line between the two sides once last year.
Tsai’s government has slammed China this month over blocking Taiwan from participation in the World Health Organization, which is helping to cope with the virus outbreak. China bars Taiwan from membership in international organizations that require statehood as a prerequisite.