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China’s Military Activities Near Taiwan Aim to Impress at Home and Abroad
China’s Military Activities Near Taiwan Aim to Impress at Home and Abroad
Two J-11 fighter jets and a H-6K bomber fly in formation on May 11, 2018. Shortly thereafter, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force conducted patrol training over China’s Island of Taiwan. LI GANG / XINHUA / Xinhua via AFP
Q&A / Asia

China’s Military Activities Near Taiwan Aim to Impress at Home and Abroad

The number of Chinese military flights near Taiwan has soared in recent days. In this Q&A, our expert Amanda Hsiao says Beijing is not only demonstrating its objections to deepening U.S.-Taiwan ties, but also warning the broader international community against getting closer to Taiwan.   

What is happening?

The first days of October brought a significant spike in Chinese military aircraft entering into the south west corner of Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).  The number of such aircraft in the ADIZ broke records three times, on Friday 1 October with 38 planes, Saturday 2 October 39 planes and Monday 4 October 56 planes. Prior to this streak, the record for the largest number of Chinese military planes to enter Taiwan’s ADIZ in one day was set on 15 June 2021, when 28 entered.

The area that the planes flew through is not Taiwan’s territorial air space, which starts twelve nautical miles from its coast. ADIZs are government-designated air spaces within which aircraft are expected to comply with identification and reporting procedures. The purpose is to allow countries a means of monitoring air traffic coming close to their air space.

Although Chinese military planes have entered Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ almost daily for at least a year now, Beijing’s decision to dramatically surge the number of planes over the short span of a few days suggests a deliberate show of military strength.

China’s recent military activity in Taiwan’s ADIZ follows months of relative quiet between May and August, then a significant increase starting in September. According to Taiwan’s defence ministry, over 380 planes entered in 2020. The total number of planes in 2021 looks to at least double that amount; so far, 671 planes have entered, according to the defence ministry’s Twitter account. Taiwan has decried China for its “bullying,” while the U.S. has called the activities “provocative” and “destabilising”.

What is China hoping to achieve?

Through shows of military strength China seeks to demonstrate its commitment to its one-China principle — i.e. the position that there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of China — and to influence the calculations of multiple actors who it believes are acting in concert to strengthen Taiwan’s de facto independence and endanger the achievement of Beijing’s long-asserted goal of unification. Nested within this overarching objective are several likely goals.

First, China hopes to intensify pressures on Taiwan’s military, forcing personnel to maintain constant vigilance and readiness, and to condition the Taiwanese population to think twice about pursuing efforts to reduce Taiwan’s international isolation. In late September, China rebuked Taiwan for applying to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major regional trade agreement, and dispatched 24 planes the next day.

Secondly, the flights are partly intended to demonstrate to a U.S. administration that has called its commitment to Taiwan “rock-solid” that China’s determination to prevent Taiwanese independence is even more unswerving. According to the U.S.’s long-standing one-China policy, Washington does not have official, diplomatic relations with Taiwan and does not support Taiwan’s independence. At the same time, the U.S. is committed to continuing unofficial relations with Taiwan and helping Taiwan maintain its defence capabilities. 

Beijing uses military flights near Taiwan to register the strength of its objections to developments in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Under the Biden administration, the U.S. has framed support for Taiwan as part of the larger strategic imperative to deter China from threatening the post-World War II international order (which Washington has dominated). This has elevated the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. foreign policy, with Washington making clear the importance it attaches to its unofficial relationship with Taipei. For example, in April 2021 the Biden administration announced that it had loosened guidelines for U.S. government contacts with Taiwan, and in August the two sides held their first-ever meeting on coast guard-related issues. The U.S. has also encouraged other countries to deepen their unofficial engagement with Taiwan, and made the case internationally for seeing stability in the Taiwan Strait as linked to the larger regional security picture. Beijing uses military flights near Taiwan to register the strength of its objections to developments in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Thirdly, Beijing also wants to signal to the group of international actors that have become increasingly interested in the Taiwan issue, that getting too close to Taiwan or interfering in any way with China’s Taiwan policy would be costly. Japan, which has begun to publicly frame security in the Taiwan Strait as linked to its own security, and the UK, which sailed a warship for the first time through the Taiwan Strait in September, are likely targets of this signalling, as are a number of European countries whose ties with Taiwan are warming.

Fourthly, Beijing was likely playing to a domestic audience, as the country celebrated its 1 October national day. As the U.S.’s support to Taiwan has publicly deepened, hyper-nationalist voices in China have called on Beijing to respond more forcefully to what they see as Washington’s provocations. With U.S.-China competition intensifying, Beijing feels increasingly compelled to show to its population that it is responding to major shows of military power by the U.S. and its partners. Indeed, the surge in flights may partly be in response to  a major exercise involving the navies of the U.S., UK, Japan, Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand, including three aircraft carriers, that also took place in early October.  

Finally, regular military flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ are strategically and tactically useful for China. Besides providing the Chinese military with valuable opportunities to train, the flights have focused on the south west corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ; near the western entrance of the Bashi Channel, a key passageway for aircraft, surface vessels and submarines crossing from the Pacific into what China considers its near seas. Some military analysts have pointed out that by maintaining military presence in the area, China improves its capacity to control a strategically important channel and to deter U.S. and Taiwan submarine activity there.

Will China’s actions have their desired effect?

The military flights will likely serve their purpose for Beijing in some ways and less so in others. They were probably a useful tool for military purposes and for the party to demonstrate to its domestic audience that it remains in control of the cross-strait situation. 

The flights also imposed a cost on Taiwan’s military by placing stress on its military personnel and assets, both psychologically and budget-wise. Taiwan reported that the cost of fuel and maintenance for scrambling its jets in response to Chinese military planes totalled about $900 million in 2020.

The psychological impact of China’s tactics on Taiwan’s population may well have worn off.

Beyond that however, the benefits are questionable. China’s show of military power will not significantly change the calculations of either Taiwan or its friends like the U.S., except perhaps by bolstering support in Washington and Taipei for reducing Taiwan’s international isolation and strengthening its defences. This year, the Taiwan government has requested from its legislature an extra $8.7 billion over the next five years on top of its annual defence budget. This year’s requested defence budget, at $16.8 billion, is the highest ever. The psychological impact of China’s tactics on Taiwan’s population may well have worn off. Support to Taiwan is viewed favourably on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress and increasingly by the American people. According to an August 2021 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 69 per cent of respondents said they favoured recognising Taiwan as an independent country. 

The limited impact of China’s military signalling vis-a-vis Taiwan underscores the dilemma it faces in responding to the Biden administration’s assertive Taiwan policy, particularly as U.S.-China competition intensifies. Beijing is concerned that, although Washington rhetorically commits to not supporting Taiwan independence, the acceleration of U.S.-Taiwan cooperation and Taiwan’s increasing exchanges with other governments effectively contribute to a gradual hollowing out of Beijing’s one-China principle. These “salami-slicing” efforts by the U.S. to change the status quo, as China likes to call them, make it hard for Beijing to respond proportionally and effectively in terms of its objectives.

Is a conflict in the Taiwan Strait around the corner?

China’s military flights are not by themselves an indication of an impending military attack on Taiwan, or even of Beijing at its angriest. If China wanted to send a stronger signal it would have chosen to fly through the so-called “median line” in the Taiwan Strait—a tacitly agreed military boundary between China and Taiwan. China has historically sent military aircraft across the median line on rare occasions to express especially high levels of frustration; aircraft crossed multiple times in 2020, in response to visits by senior U.S. officials to Taiwan, and in 2019 for the first time in two decades. 

There are also reasons to believe that the risk of an invasion in the coming years, although rising because of China’s growing military capabilities, is not imminent. A successful Chinese military invasion is not guaranteed and could result in a hugely costly war with the U.S; on top of the immediate disruption caused by the conflict, the international backlash that would result would likely derail domestic priorities that are more important to Beijing; and it does not appear that China has given up on its current approach of peaceful unification, a phrase that Secretary General Xi Jinping notably used in his reference to Taiwan during his speech at the 1 July centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party.

Still, policymakers should be attentive to the potential for an unintended incident in the air. The Bashi Channel is a key passageway for U.S. aircraft and vessels entering the South China Sea from the Pacific, meaning that Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ is not only a site for encounters involving Chinese and Taiwanese military aircraft, but U.S. aircraft as well. Such encounters can reportedly become aggressive when aircraft seek to drive each other away. As the parties seek to assert themselves in the airspace around Taiwan, they should also bear in mind their common interest in avoiding a dangerous miscalculation in this contentious part of the world.

An earlier version of this article referred to a UK aircrraft carrier transiting the Taiwan Strait in September. This error has now been corrected.