TAIPEI - Taiwan says Chinese military planes have flown into its air defense space six times in a single week and eight times this month, so far.
Although Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense escorts each aircraft away and alerts the public on an island that has long distrusted China, analysts believe leaders in Beijing are warning people as far away as Washington while helping to train their own troops in case of conflict in Asia.
The U.S. government has saddled China with a 2-year-old trade dispute, accused it of ignoring COVID-19 for too long earlier in the year and sailed its navy vessels in Asian waters to check Chinese expansion.
U.S. naval ships have sailed six times so far this year through the strait separating Taiwan from China, an irritant to Beijing. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and resents other countries for supporting it. The U.S. navy has also carried out four “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea near Taiwan so far in 2020.
“I don’t think we can say it stops at Taiwan and then that’s it,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the RAND Corp. research institution in the United States.
“There’s definitely some signaling to the U.S., as well,” he said. “Anything they can do to try to signal to the U.S. that it should not be getting as cozy with Taiwan as it has been over past few years, that’s an important thing.”
China also lacks military experience since its 1970s land war with Vietnam, experts say, and it wants to train for anything new that comes up. On paper China has the world’s third strongest armed forces and has ruffled other Asian countries by placing military infrastructure on disputed islets in the South China Sea.
“We should say it this way, that China has multiple goals, multi purposes,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
The Chinese planes spotted this month had crossed over the outer reaches of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, according to Ministry of National Defense statements in Taipei. Taiwanese air force planes fly alongside each aircraft to make it leave.
On Monday the ministry said a Chinese H-6 bomber and a Chengdu J-10 fighter jet had flown through the southwestern part of Taiwan’s airspace.
Chinese officials want Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, to endorse a “One China” policy as condition for further dialogue. Tsai rejects the condition and most Taiwanese have told government surveys they prefer at least today’s degree of autonomy over Beijing’s goal of unification. China has claimed Taiwan as its own since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.
Before this month and since Tsai took office in 2016, Chinese aircraft had passed near Taiwan only periodically and seldom crossed into Taiwanese airspace. The two sides lie 160 kilometers apart at their nearest point.
China has accused Washington of trying to stop Chinese expansion at sea. Australia and Japan have sent their own vessels into the South China Sea to remind China the waterway is open internationally. Washington historically sees Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines as Asia Pacific allies against any conflict with China.
U.S. senators are working this year on the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a special budget for $1.4 billion in the plan’s first year for U.S. military activity in Asia and $5.5 billion in its second year. The bill is expected to bolster especially U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific.
Pressure at home over the COVID-19 outbreak and offshore military moves directed at China are pressuring Chinese President Xi Jinping to show strength, said Huang Chung-ting, assistant research fellow with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.
“Xi Jinping’s attitude now is that he can’t fail,” the research fellow said. “He’s got to show he’s still got a lot of means. Whenever the external pressure goes up one point, he’s got to answer by ramping it up two points.”
Taiwan has sent marines to the Pratas Islands, three features it controls in the South China Sea, in light of China’s movements, domestic news media reported this week.
China’s planes have not approached Taiwan’s main island and they probably leave the air defense zone shortly after crossing into it, Huang Kwei-bo said. “We should feel worried, but not over-worried,” he said.