More than 50 Chinese aircraft have flown into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in recent days, marking the sharpest escalation in military sorties since the year began.
Sunday saw a record 39 flights enter the ADIZ, followed by 13 more on Monday, the government in Taiwan said. The ADIZ is an area of land and sea tracked by Taiwan’s military, including the Taiwan Strait and eastern China.
Taipei responded to the incursions by scrambling several of its fighters to confront the Chinese warplanes, and the military tracked them on its air defense radar systems.
There was no immediate comment from Beijing on the incursion.
China typically sends between one and five each aircraft each day in the direction of Taiwan each day, according to public data shared by Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense, but numbers can fluctuate depending on tensions in the Strait of Taiwan and other political events.
Sunday’s flights by the People’s Liberation Army followed a joint freedom of navigation exercise between the US and Japan in the Philippine Sea, which included the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln.
“The incursions into the ADIZ in the past two days are likely related to the U.S.-Japan military exercises that took place last week. I think the Chinese are increasingly worried about U.S. military operations with allies in the region, and less worried about Taiwan's actions,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Daily PLA flights toward Taiwan escalated to more than 940 last year, according to the MOD, including a record 56 in a single day in October. The incident coincided with the 100th anniversary of China’s Communist Party, which has long viewed democratic Taiwan as a province that it hopes to take through peaceful or military means.
Flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ do not signify immediate military action by the PLA but are regarded as one of China’s “grey zone” tactics to reduce morale in Taiwan while sending a signal to its allies like Japan and the U.S. that it is a formidable force.
“Above all, I see the Chinese try to send a statement to Washington that they have the capability to counter all U.S. warships close to the Chinese ports,” said Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
Su told VOA that the volume of flights by the PLA is only one area of concern for Taiwan and its allies. Just as troubling, he said, will be the rollout of China’s new and more powerful WS10 engine in its stealth fighter jets as well as its expanding nuclear arsenal and naval capability in the coming years.
The combined effect will transform the PLA from a “green water navy,” which must stay near ports or coastline, into an ocean-going “blue water navy” that can travel hundreds of nautical miles from shore – a potential threat to countries beyond Asia, he said.
“It’s not only Taiwan that is threatened by Beijing,” Su said. “Beijing’s sea power right now in 2022 is a so-called ‘green water navy,’ however, they will get more aircraft carriers. My personal view is that the PLA navy will become a ‘blue water navy’ by 2025… because its aircraft carriers will be in service and it can start expanding its air power beyond the first island chain.”
China’s growing naval and military power has brought renewed attention to Taiwan, which was once called an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” by U.S. General Douglas McArthur due to its strategic position between continental Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
It also plays a major role in the U.S. “first island chain” defense strategy, which incorporates Japan, parts of the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as Japan’s southern Ryukyu islands into a shield to keep China out of the Pacific.
The Financial Times reported on Sunday, however, that China has maintained an unprecedented military presence on the east side of the Ryukyus and Taiwan for the past six months.
"Last year more Chinese navy vessels and aircraft started operating east of Taiwan. Prior to that they were deployed primarily on the west side. As the FT noted, the PLA is operating regularly between the Nansei Islands and the east of Taiwan.” Tokyo refers to the Ryukyu chain as the Nansei islands.
A range of actors including NATO and the European Union, has expressed concern over the past year about China’s growing reach across the Indo-Pacific and its ability to control the Taiwan Strait, a globally important 177-kilometer waterway between mainland Asia and Taiwan. Concern is especially high in Japan, which relies on imports to meet 90% of its energy needs.
China has already expanded its regional footprint through island building in the South China Sea, as well as an extensive military modernization program that has upgraded the size and power of its armed forces.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press and Reuters.