In our previous article, we noted that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan from August 2-3 triggered unprecedented “combat drills” by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving long range precision fires into the Taiwan Strait, multi-domain assault drills, launching ballistic missiles over Taiwan, and large air incursions into the southwestern portion of the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. We posited that we are unlikely to see a return to the pre-visit patterns of ADIZ incursions anytime soon, and that for all practical purposes the median line no longer exists as an informal border separating the PLA and Taiwanese militaries in the strait.
Six weeks after the Pelosi visit, we are witnessing the establishment of a “new normal” in the PLA’s activities in the Taiwan Strait and around the island. In this article, we leverage new data provided by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) to revisit our two earlier suppositions and analyze the changed status quo and the “new normal” around Taiwan following the Pelosi visit.
The PLAN’s Presence in Waters Around Taiwan
Beginning on August 7, the MND began making public the data on the number of PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels and PLA aircraft operating around Taiwan’s “surrounding region” and not just those that entered the island’s ADIZ or crossed to the east of the median line. For example, on August 7, the MND announced that it had detected “14 PLAN vessels and 66 PLA aircraft around our surrounding region,” and that “22 of the detected aircraft had flown on the east part of the median line of the Taiwan Strait and our SW ADIZ.”
The data show that since the Pelosi visit the PLA has maintained a constant daily naval and aerial presence around Taiwan, even when there are no reports of ADIZ incursions or median line crossings. However, this is likely not new but rather had gone unreported previously. Indeed, the MND expanded the area from which it reports PLA incursions while continuing to only publish the types and locations of intrusions within the ADIZ and east of the median line. For anything west of these lines , the MND supplies quantitative data only.
The MND data show that the PLAN deployed an average of 12 vessels daily while the combat drills were being conducted around Taiwan. Since the end of those exercises, the PLAN has deployed fewer vessels daily near Taiwan – on average fewer than half (5-6 vessels) – yet they have become part of the “new normal.” Most recently, PLAN ships were seen observing the USS Higgins and HMCS Vancouver as they transited the Taiwan Strait on September 20. Previously, the MND had left any PLAN ships “shadowing” foreign warships in the Taiwan Strait unreported.
ADIZ Incursions and Median Line Crossings
August 2022 set a new record for sorties – 444 – greater than the sum of sorties in the preceding five months (410) and more than twice the number of sorties of the previous record month (October 2020 with 196 sorties). It was also the first month since the MND began making data on incursions publicly available (September 2020)
However, it is the new MND data that provides us an insight of the scale of PLA aerial operations around Taiwan. The data indicate that since August 7 the PLA has flown nearly 1,200 sorties in the skies near Taiwan, and over 40 percent of those sorties (474) have entered the island’s ADIZ, with approximately one-third (159 sorties) intruding into the southwestern portion of the ADIZ while the remaining two-thirds (315 sorties) crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait. Even if we exclude sorties conducted during the combat drills associated with the Pelosi visit, we are still looking at about 1,000 sorties flown near Taiwan.
Since the Pelosi visit, a PLA incursion into the southwestern part of the ADIZ averages 3.3 sorties, compared to the pre-visit average of 4.4 sorties (calculated from January 1 to 31 July 31, 2022). While there has been a decrease in the average number of sorties in the southwestern ADIZ following the Pelosi visit, the purpose of those incursions does not appear to have changed – at least with regard to regular KQ-200 ASW and other ISR aircraft sorties. From May through July the PLA conducted an average of 11 KQ-200 ASW sorties monthly in the southwestern ADIZ after the type made its reappearance following the crash in the South China Sea in early March. While attention was focused on incursions across the median line in August, the PLA has continued to carry out other regular missions, such as anti-submarine warfare, in the southwestern ADIZ in line with the average of the prior three months (11 sorties).
The post-Pelosi visit pattern of PLA aerial incursions is also now becoming clearer – greater emphasis and resources are being directed towards crossings of the median line. Sorties across the median line are now a near-daily affair – since the visit there have been only six days with no recorded crossing – and they are on average twice as large compared to those in the southwestern portion of the ADIZ. The composition of these sorties is also markedly different, consisting principally of J-10 or J-11 fighters (31 percent) and Su-30 or J-16 fighter-bombers (64 percent).
Further, it appears that median line crossings have replaced southwestern ADIZ incursions as one of Beijing’s chosen instruments to signal its displeasure at closer Taiwan-U.S. political and diplomatic relations. We can observe a noticeable spike in median line crossings when high-level U.S. officials visit Taiwan. The visit by Pelosi in early August was only the first in a flurry of congressional delegations (CODEL) visiting the island: Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) led a CODEL to Taiwan in mid-August; Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) visited the island on August 25; Representative Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) led a CODEL to Taiwan on September 7.
Members of Congress were not the only high-level U.S. politicians to visit the island. The governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb, visited Taiwan on August 21, while the governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, visited on August 30. Both governors’ visits to Taiwan were aimed at strengthening economic ties and boosting collaboration on semiconductors as part of the recently passed CHIPS Act.
These visits resulted in an increase in PLA sorties across the median line (see for example here, here, and here) as the high-level U.S. officials met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. We also saw an increase in median line crossings when the United States and Taiwan announced the start of formal trade talks as part of the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade, and when the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the Taiwan Policy Act by a 17-5 vote. The MND data show that these spikes in median line crossings also corresponded to increased PLAN activity and PLA aerial presence around Taiwan.
This said, it is also noticeable that the pattern of median line crossings associated with the follow-on CODEL visits were significantly less threatening than those linked to Pelosi’s. The PLA’s median line violations have, primarily, taken place at the northeast or southwest corner of the line (see here, here and here), thus not pointing directly at the island or its major population centers. That was not the case during the combat drills associated with the Pelosi visit (see here and here). Moreover, since the Pelosi visit, incursions linked to the other CODEL visits were made up of significantly smaller formations crossing the median line.
The PLA’s Introduction of Drones
On September 5, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense for the first time released public information regarding the PLA’s deployment of drones near the island when it showed the flight path of a PLA BZK-007 reconnaissance UAV in Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ as part of a larger 9-sortie incursion. While this was the first time that Taiwanese military acknowledged the presence of Chinese UAVs in the island’s ADIZ, PLA drones have been met frequently in Japan’s ADIZ and over the South China Sea before.
Since the debut of the BZK-007 earlier in September, the PLA has dispatched five other UAV types near Taiwan: the BZK-005, TB-001 and KVD-001 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, the WZ-7 high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV, and the CH-4 armed UAV. These UAVs have made 17 sorties into the southwestern ADIZ or across the median line (as of September 23), and they appear to be focused on areas at the ends of the median line close to the two vital maritime “chokepoints”: near the Miyako Strait (see here and here) and the Bashi Channel (see here and here).
The UAVs’ focus on the two areas underscores PLA’s interest in monitoring outside navies’ movements within the First Island Chain. Critically, they are being deployed in ISR missions, similar to what had become common with other specialized PLA aircraft like the Y-8 RECCE (see here), Y-8 ELINT (see here and here), or the Y-8/Y-9 EW (see here and here). It is likely that the “sudden flurry” of UAV activity in the area is part of a broader PLA campaign to integrate unmanned systems into its maritime operations.
Since the beginning of August 2022, the PLA has established a “new normal” in the Taiwan Strait with the previously acknowledged median line erased entirely. This has left Taiwan and its armed forces stretched to respond to the growing number of incursions in a significantly wider area – from north of Taiwan and along the Taiwan Strait to the southwest of the island.