Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) warships and aircraft carried out exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan on Thursday. According to Chinese state media, PLAAF fighters, bombers, and early warning aircraft, along with PLAN warships, transited the Miyako Strait and entered the Western Pacific.
In response to Chinese activities in the Miyako Strait, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighters to monitor the large-scale drill. The Miyako Strait runs between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa and offers a small passageway with international waters and airspace through Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Chinese strategists identify the Miyako Strait, along with the Bashi Channel, as one of the critical chokepoints in the so-called first island chain.
As I’ve discussed in the The Diplomat in recent months, we’ve seen PLAN and PLAAF activity along these first island choke points quite regularly. In March 2015, the PLAAF held its first-ever exercise in the Bashi Channel. In June 2015, the PLAN held an exercise in waters east of the Bashi Channel, including a transit of the waterway, which runs between Taiwan and the Philippines’ northern island of Luzon. In recent months, following a deterioration in China-Taiwan ties since the May 2016 inauguration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the intensity and frequency of exercises has intensified. In September 2016, the PLAAF revisited the Bashi Channel. Later that month, the PLAAF conducted an exercise in the Miyako Strait, prompting Japan’s ASDF to scramble jets. The PLAAF repeated the maneuver in November 2016, one again prompting the ASDF to scramble aircraft. In December 2016, a similar incident occurred, but China complained that Japanese ASDF fighters had fired warning flares.
“The Miyako Strait is a universally acknowledged international flight passage,” Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesperson Yang Yujun had said at the time of the December transit. “The exercise had been planned within this year’s air force training routine. It does not target any specific country nor objective and it adheres to international law and practices.” “It must be pointed out that the various interferential activities initiated by the Japanese military aircraft and ships in recent years can easily lead to misunderstanding and misjudgment, resulting in disputes and even conflicts in the sea and air space,” Yang added. In addition to Japan, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has been closely observed PLAN and PLAAF activity in the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel. Taiwan observed Thurdsay’s transit and said it occured outside its air defense identification zone.
The intensification of PLAN and PLAAF activity along the first island chain reached its culmination with a month of exercises in December 2016 involving China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and a five-vessel group. The Liaoning entered the Western Pacific after sailing south from its home port of Qingdao via the Miyako Strait and sailed south to enter the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel. Continuing Chinese exercises along these waterways will allow the PLAN and PLAAF to maintain experience transiting these strategically vital chokepoints. Beijing anticipates commissioning two additional carriers in coming years, with its second carrier potentially expected to enter sea trials as early as late 2017.