Chinese air force increases drills near Taiwan, puts pressure on US

Record numbers of Chinese air force fighter jets and bombers conducting drills near Taiwan in recent days have escalated fears that Beijing is willing to use military brinkmanship over US support of Taiwan.

rom Friday to Monday, as China celebrated the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the People’s Liberation Army sent 148 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, shattering previous daily records three times in a row and requiring Taiwan to scramble jets and issue warnings.

On Monday alone, 56 aircraft, including 38 J-16 fighter jets and a dozen H-6 bombers, made sorties into the Taiwan-monitored zone, starting early in the morning and ending late at night.

Defence analysts noted that the missions stopped short of Taiwan’s airspace and may primarily be a way for China to boost nationalism at home while signalling resolve.

But the dramatic scale of the sorties is itself dangerous and piles pressure on Taiwan’s air force, as well as American efforts to strengthen the island’s defences.

“Simply put, it’s flying a bunch of military aircraft around a country that you threaten to invade,” said Gerald C Brown, a defence analyst in Washington who tracks Chinese air force sorties near Taiwan.

“This isn’t something that will stir a major military response. It’s grey-zone warfare, where signalling is the biggest component, but there is also a lot of wear and tear on Taiwan’s air force.”

Beijing’s displays of military strength place Taiwan at the centre of efforts by the United States and its allies to counter Chinese aggression.

The United States and Australia joined Taiwan to condemn the escalation, drawing an angry rebuttal from China.

While China has not given an official explanation for the escalating number of jets being flown near Taiwan, the state-run China Media Group has justified the missions as a “necessary counter-measure” to what it called “collusion” between the United States and Taiwan.

The drills also come as China faces a challenge from the new three-way defence pact known as AUKUS, in which the United States and Britain will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia.

Recent joint exercises between British and US strike groups alongside Japanese defensive forces have also drawn Beijing’s ire.

Over the past year, China’s air force has repeatedly sent planes deeper into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

Faced with incursions, Taiwan’s defence ministry began releasing regular reports of these sorties last year.

By flying around the southern tip of Taiwan to the southeast coast, the Chinese air force is also demonstrating an ability to attack from the east, requiring adjustments to the island’s defences, said Ling-Yu Lin, an assistant professor of Asia-Pacific Affairs at National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan.

“Previously, it was just fighters, but now it is a mixture of fighters, bombers and Y-8s with electronic interference equipment, as well as the KJ-500 early warning aircraft, which together make an attack team,” he said.

Despite never ruling Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party has claimed the island since the Nationalist Kuomintang fled to Taiwan in 1949, plunging the Chinese civil war into a stalemate.

Beijing continues to threaten Taiwan’s democratically elect- ed government with a military takeover if it ever formally declares independence.

While never abandoning a policy of “peaceful unification” with Taiwan, Chinese president Xi Jinping has spoken of the “inevitability” of Taiwan’s return and said the issue cannot be passed on from generation to generation for ever.  

On Tuesday, US president Joe Biden told reporters outside the White House he had spoken with Mr Xi about Taiwan and agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement”.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, the United States has “acknowledged” – but not recognised – China’s position that Taiwan is part of China. (©Washington Post)

© Washington Post

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