China sharply escalates warplane provocations near Taiwan

China’s military stepped up provocative aerial incursions near Taiwan on Monday with its biggest sortie to date, sending 58 warplanes, including 12 nuclear-capable bombers, inside the island’s air defense zone, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry said.

Flights on Friday and Saturday traveled into the same southern air defense zone in what Chinese state media called practice for a military assault on Taiwan, an island state 100 miles off the southern Chinese coast. Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of its sovereign territory.

The incursions Monday, in two waves, were the largest so far in what appears to be a Beijing-directed campaign of coercion. The flights bring the total aircraft flying into the air defense zone since late last week to 136 and represent a People’s Liberation Army escalation of tension.

“The United States is very concerned by the People’s Republic of China’s provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Saturday. “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan.”

The Taiwanese ministry said the flights Monday included 52 aircraft during the day and four J-16 jets during the evening. In addition to 12 H-6 bombers, the daytime flights included 34 J-16s, two Su-30 jets, two Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft and two KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft, the ministry said on its website.

In response, Taiwanese interceptor jets were scrambled and air defense missile systems were deployed. The Taiwanese military also warned the Chinese aircraft to leave the area.

In saber-rattling incursions Sunday, 16 jets — eight J-16 and four Su-30 fighters, two Y-8 anti-submarine warfare planes and two KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft — flew close to the island, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry said in a post on Twitter.

That mass incursion followed a total of 38 PLA aircraft on Friday and 39 aircraft on Saturday, also a mix of fighters and electronic warfare and monitoring aircraft.

Chinese state media have said the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is a sign that the Biden administration would not come to the aid of its unofficial ally. China has told Taiwanese leaders that the United States would abandon them in ways similar to the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban militia in 11 days.

The increased air incursions are part of what Chinese state media called routine and normal military exercises aimed at deterring Taiwanese forces and “foreign interference,” the nationalist, state-controlled Global Times newspaper said. The record-breaking number of aircraft incursions also was a response to the dispatch of U.S. and allied aircraft carriers near the island.

The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike groups sailed near Taiwan on Sept. 27, according to news reports.

Menacing messaging

“Flying these high-risk sorties near Taiwan is just another way of dictating terms, contrary to all their commitments to resolve the Taiwan question peacefully through dialogue,” said David Stilwell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “This mode of messaging is especially dangerous because the people making these decisions in Beijing think in terrestrial terms. They think these actions are slow-moving and reversible.”

The danger of a conflict breaking out is greater when aircraft are used in messaging, he said. Unlike ships, planes are fragile. Even small collisions with intercepting Taiwanese aircraft could lead to disastrous outcomes.

“Intercepts are dicey things. Determining what constitutes a hostile act is never easy,” said Mr. Stilwell, a former Air Force F-16 pilot. “And flying armed combat aircraft at Taiwan, which is obligated to intercept inbound PLA aircraft with armed combat aircraft of its own, is downright reckless.”

Most of the earlier Chinese aerial incursions involved reconnaissance jets or bombers.

“Pointing combat aircraft with forward-firing ordnance at each other is a great way to send the wrong message,” Mr. Stilwell said.

Rick Fisher, a Chinese military affairs expert with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the communist regime in Beijing is in its fourth year of escalating military pressure to demoralize and coerce 23 million people in Taiwan.

“The Chinese Communist Party is using this crude military pressure as part of an orchestra of coercion, [one] that includes a massive insidious propaganda global political campaign to erase any recognition of a free Taiwan and the weaponization of its political, economic and cultural relations with Taiwan,” Mr. Fisher said.

The stepped-up flights also are designed to improve the PLA’s joint war-fighting operations and strategies.

Mr. Fisher said he thinks Beijing’s intimidation efforts will only increase.

“The PLA is barely getting started with its military coercion,” he said. “It should be expected that future exercises will include multiple aircraft carriers supporting simultaneous amphibious assaults, to include use of anti-ship ballistic missiles and perhaps anti-satellite demonstrations.”

The United States should consider a closer relationship with Taiwan to deter military aggression, Mr. Fisher said.

China’s leadership is “clearly preparing to wage war to destroy the democratic future chosen by the vast majority of Taiwanese,” Mr. Fisher said. “It is overdue for the United States to consider a new relationship with Taiwan that will allow for a revival of Taiwan-U.S. military cooperation sufficient to defeat and thus deter a Chinese invasion.”

A ‘declaration of sovereignty’

The Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, said the aerial effort is “a clear and unmistakable declaration of China’s sovereignty over the island.”

The warplanes “were not a guard of honor,” the newspaper said.

“They are fighting forces aimed at actual combat,” the newspaper stated. “The warplanes that gathered over the [Taiwan Strait] were possibly dispatched from different airports, showing the strong ability of the PLA to form a wartime air attack.”

The mass air incursions amount to a major increase in the number of flights into the air defense zone.

Until last week, the PLA was conducting incursions on a near-daily basis using one or two aircraft.

“The PLA is forming a siege of Taiwan with a show of strength as it did in Beijing in 1949,” said the Global Times, referring to the civil war that ended with Chinese Nationalist Party forces ousted from the mainland and taking refuge on Taiwan.

Retired Gen. H.R. McMaster, for a time President Trump’s national security adviser, warned Monday that the U.S. and its allies are entering a “very dangerous time” in their relations with China.

In a roundtable with reporters hosted by the Hudson Institute, Mr. McMaster said the flights align with China’s long-standing campaign of coercion against Taiwan, but he would not rule out the advent of a more belligerent approach.

“I wouldn’t discount it,” he said. “I think that it’s really important for the United States, for Japan, the free world, the European Union to make clear to China that this kind of aggression is unacceptable.”

He said Chinese President Xi Jinping has become emboldened after sustaining few international consequences over his aggressive clampdown in Hong Kong and other internal places. 

Mr. Price, the State Department spokesman, said the United States has an abiding interest in peace and stability across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.

“We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability,” he said, noting the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for selling defensive arms to Taiwan and U.S.-Chinese communiques and agreements.

“The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region,” Mr. Price said. “We will continue to stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security and values and deepen our ties with democratic Taiwan.”

Joseph Clark contributed to this report.

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