Incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by Chinese military aircraft have broken consecutive records in the past week, with 154 warplanes dispatched to Taiwan’s ADIZ over the past five days. October 2021 now holds the record for the most flybys of Chinese warplanes, despite the fact that not even a week has elapsed since the month began.
The flybys were timed to coincide with China’s National Day, which is commemorated on October 1. On Friday, the day of National Day itself, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported 38 Chinese military planes dispatched to Taiwan’s ADIZ, breaking a previous record set in June. This record was then broken the next day, with 39 planes dispatched to Taiwan’s ADIZ on Saturday. On Sunday, 16 Chinese warplanes were sortied, and records were broken again on Monday with 56 planes, followed by one plane on Tuesday.
Taiwan dispatched its own fighter jets to conduct interceptions during these incursions, with Chinese pilots reported to have shouted expletives at Taiwanese pilots when warned by radio.
Chinese flybys on Friday, Saturday, and Monday took place during both daytime and nighttime, in two waves. Military experts have suggested that this is intended to signal China’s capacities, demonstrating that the PLA has the ability to carry out both daytime and nighttime operations. With Chinese air incursions taking place on successive days, the Chinese government is probably hoping to demonstrate its ability to maintain continuous deployments. Although the daytime and nighttime incursions took place in waves of between 13 and 25 on Friday and Saturday, Monday saw 52 planes enter Taiwan’s ADIZ during the daytime.
In the past year, China has dramatically increased the number of military incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, this increasing to daily on some occasions. Overall, this year has seen over 600 flybys, which is up from just 380 last year. Chinese incursions began in March 2019 and, according to the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense in a report on Tuesday, the amount of sorties has increased by over 50 percent since last year. With more than 150 flybys in just the first few days of October, that may mean that close to 25 percent of these sorties were in the past week.
China seems to be expanding its repertoire when it comes to military displays. Apart from nighttime flybys, which began in March 2020, this includes sending planes across the median line of the Taiwan Straits at the highest frequency since the 1990s.
With the increase in sorties, they now occur commonly enough that this is likely also intended as a form of training for Chinese pilots. Flybys also serve the function of probing Taiwan’s air defenses, revealing weak points, and allowing for insight into Taiwan’s pattern of response. Repeatedly needing to intercept Chinese planes places pressure on the Taiwanese military, including through the stress placed on Taiwanese fighter planes that are dispatched during ADIZ incursions to warn Chinese aircraft. This can be costly, with at least $886 million spent on scrambling fighter jets 2,972 times in just 2020. As such, some have called for sending drones to intercept Chinese aircraft, rather than scrambling fighters, given the dangers of an accident during interceptions and higher costs.
Flybys also place pressure on the Tsai administration domestically, and may be aimed at stirring up fear among the Taiwanese public, as a form of psychological warfare. It may be hoped that frequent Chinese military flybys will reinforce a sense that the Taiwanese military is weak, decreasing the odds that Taiwanese will have faith in the military to resist a Chinese invasion, and in this way decreasing the odds of resistance.
Indeed, if China wishes to annex Taiwan with its key industries – such as in semiconductor manufacturing – intact, this would require minimizing damage to infrastructure, as would occur in the event of protracted warfare. This may be the role played by psychological warfare, then.
For her administration’s part, President Tsai Ing-wen asserted that she would not back down in the face of Chinese threats in an article published in Foreign Affairs on Tuesday. Tsai touted her administration’s efforts to contribute to regional security, as a responsible stakeholder, and stressed that “The story of Taiwan is one of resilience – of a country upholding democratic, progressive values while facing a constant challenge to its existence.”
The flybys may be intended to send a signal not to just Taiwan, however. Over the weekend, two U.S. carrier strike groups conducted exercises with a U.K. carrier strike group and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s JS Ise in the Philippine Sea. On Monday, the U.K. carrier strike group, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier, then moved through the Luzon Strait in preparation for joint exercises with the Singaporean navy.
The United States has condemned China’s actions as “provocative.” Australia also urged China against the use of force, and Japan called for peaceful resolutions. On the other hand, the U.S. has stated that it is engaged in private communications with China over its actions. This has led to some concerned reports in pan-Green media outlets, in line with traditional pan-Green skepticism over backroom deal-making between Democratic presidential administrations with China that could potentially result in Taiwan being thrown under the bus.
Either way, apart from the psychological warfare aspect, the flybys could be potentially aimed at influencing domestic Taiwanese politics. Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ can benefit the pro-unification Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, which has sought to attack the Tsai administration with the claim that it has been unable to maintain stable cross-strait relations. The KMT has attributed this to Tsai’s failure to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, while depicting the Tsai administration as having been overly provocative toward China. Although the Tsai administration has shifted away from overt pro-independence advocacy and toward a pro-status quo position, the KMT has sought to frame the DPP as seeking to advance its pro-independence agenda in a way that is fundamentally destabilizing to cross-strait relations.
Chinese flybys, then, along with other military exercises, can give ammunition to the KMT’s arguments. That being said, Chinese threats against Taiwan don’t always have Beijing’s desired effect. For example, after a January 2019 speech by Xi Jinping in which Xi stated that force was still on the table if Taiwan resisted efforts at unification, the public rallied behind Tsai. As a result, Tsai was able to put down challenges from the deep Green spectrum of her party and the KMT was momentarily forced to tone down its positions. Similarly, the Tsai administration used the crackdown on the 2019 Hong Kong protests as an example of Chinese force that could potentially be applied to Taiwan in the future, using this to build momentum for its victorious 2020 presidential re-election bid.
Likewise, it is not true that Chinese military threats dominate the headlines in Taiwan. Certainly the record-breaking flybys were a front-page news item, but they appeared alongside a number of other headlines. News headlines from international media may paint a misleading picture of reactions in Taiwan, where domestic responses were still comparatively muted. It may be the case that China has not yet been successful in building a narrative of progressive escalating threats to Taiwan, with military threats having occurred too often in such a manner that they become a repetitive news item that the public is used to. Frequently hyperbolic reporting from Taiwanese media, including on cross-strait issues, could be another factor as to why the Chinese flybys may be seen in a less serious light.
If the number of Chinese warplanes dispatched to Taiwan’s ADIZ continues to increase, it remains to be seen whether this moves the needle of Taiwanese public opinion. It is possible that China will continue military activity in the coming days, because the ROC’s national holiday, Double Ten Day, is coming up on October 10. Tsai is expected to give a speech on the occasion, which will also see military displays, though public celebrations will not take place in light of COVID-19. An ongoing visit to Taiwan by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, an upcoming visit to Taiwan by French senators, or visits to Czechia, Lithuania, and Slovakia by Taiwanese delegations could provide other occasions for China to show its displeasure, potentially leading to more military threats.