China has stepped up its military posture around Taiwan over the past week, a trend that should fuel growing fears that Beijing could move closer to attacking the island.
Taiwan and Japan both reported incursions into their respective air defense identification zones on Monday, the first simultaneous announcement from Taipei and Tokyo.
Taiwan said ten Chinese military jets, including fighters and an anti-submarine warfare plane, flew in its ADIZ, while Japan registered an ASW plane in its area just east of Taiwan.
The parallel maneuvers followed the largest ever incursion into Taiwan’s air defense zone last Friday, when 20 Chinese planes, including bombers and fighters, entered the area.
The incursions came as Washington began to prepare for the increasing risk of war on Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its sovereign territory. Senior US officials fear that China is flirting with the idea of taking control of Taiwan, a scenario that would almost certainly drag out Washington and some of its allies.
Monday’s forays also followed the arrival in Taiwan of the US ambassador to Palau, alongside the president of the Pacific island nation. Palau is one of the 15 countries who have diplomatic relations with Taipei rather than Beijing, and the visit was an unusually bold move compared to the restraint Washington has long practiced in sending its diplomats to Taiwan.
Friday’s maneuvers came after the United States and Taiwan announced a deal under which their coast guards would cooperate.
Some experts interpreted the Chinese military’s measures as a gradual escalation, but agreed that the maneuvers also featured new patterns of behavior.
The People’s Liberation Army has made more regular outings in the southwest corner of the Taiwan Air Defense Zone, where the Taiwan Strait meets the Bashi Canal, since last summer. It is a crucial corridor for the Chinese military in the open waters and in the airspace of the Western Pacific.
The territory would be essential for submarine warfare in any conflict over Taiwan, which is why anti-submarine warfare planes have been involved in most of the almost daily incursions. But while the incursions were typically short, direct flights to and from ADIZ, ASW planes flew over the southern tip of Taiwan in the Western Pacific and returned over the past week.
“These last [incursions] are more about political messages than military operational importance, ”said Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, former Chief of General Staff of the Taiwanese Armed Forces. “Flying around Taiwan is not a breakthrough for them. They operated circular flights with H6 bombers when I was in office.
“I think this time around they didn’t have enough time to prepare,” added Lee. “So to express their determination to the United States, they flew to the Western Pacific but did not make a full circle.”
Some analysts, however, saw the latest moves as an escalation.
“The Y-8 and Y-9 planes have never done this before,” said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a ministry-backed think tank. Defense of Taiwan, referring to ASW flights. “We will see more of them as they begin to expand the reach of their regular operations from southwest Taiwan to the southeast.”
The reported incursion by Japan also followed an unprecedented approach. A patrol plane and surveillance plane flew in a northerly direction off the east coast of Taiwan before turning around and leaving Japan’s ADIZ through the Miyako Strait, Tokyo said.
The Miyako Islands, a small archipelago between Okinawa and Taiwan, have been a hotspot for Chinese Air Force maneuvers in recent years because the strait – like the Bashi Channel – is one of the main corridors air and sea operations of the PLA to the open Pacific. Four of the five Chinese air incursions reported by Japan in the past year occurred in this area.
In previous maneuvers, Chinese planes made only relatively short sorties southeast of the Miyako Islands before turning back. Monday’s flights marked the first time they have flown so close to Taiwan’s east coast, where the largest hardened shelters to protect military planes from missiles and airstrikes are located on the mountainside in the city of Hualien.
“With its regular operations in the southwestern corner of Taiwan ADIZ, the PLA has already changed the status quo and claimed that ‘this is my backyard’. They even included this area in their annual training plan, ”said Lee.
People familiar with Taipei’s military strategy said that if the PLA extended a regular presence in the airspace east of Taiwan, it would harm the security of the island in a much more drastic way.