In August-September 2020, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) began releasing daily reports in Chinese and English of incursions by Chinese military aircraft into its air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The objective was to publicize the latest gray zone tactic in Beijing’s multifaceted coercive toolkit against Taipei. The reporting started in large part due to large-scale military drills conducted in response to two visits to Taipei by Trump administration officials – Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar in August 2020 and Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach in September 2020.
Without these public reports, it would be very difficult, or close to impossible, to track Chinese aerial incursions. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials rarely, if ever, acknowledge these operations near and around Taiwan, so the reports from Taiwan’s MND are how the public learns about these activities
Now, three years later, the practice has continued and escalated over time. Between August 2020 and August 2022, the ADIZ incursions mainly occurred in the southwestern region, closer to Taiwan-controlled Pratas/Dongsha Island than Taiwan proper. However, in response to then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, Chinese military aircraft began to focus on crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which essentially divides the Taiwan Strait down the middle and had been tacitly accepted by both Beijing and Taipei for decades. What was once a rare occurrence – happening only 23 times on three occasions over the two years from August 2020 to July 2022 – is now a near-daily reality.
Since August 2022 to October 2023, Chinese military aircraft have crossed the median line 1,174 times over 179 days, but exactly how far beyond the center line these aircraft fly is unknown outside of the rudimentary drawings in the MND reports. In addition, some sorties in 2023 have also crossed the median line at the very northern edge.
While the military pressure through ADIZ incursions and median line crossings has increased since 2020, the MND has changed the nature of its public reports. Despite the initial efforts, the MND’s information sharing has remained insufficient. Taiwan needs to adopt more transparent and strategic communication methods to garner public support and foster regional solidarity against China’s assertiveness. In this, Taiwan could follow the “Philippine model,” which gained public attention over the last several months as tensions between Manila and Beijing at the Second Thomas Shoal have hit a breaking point. Japan’s Joint Staff also releases similar reports of Chinese military incursions in its ADIZ, but the focus is much broader than Taiwan’s as it includes activities by countries like Russia as well.
What’s in a Report?
Whenever aircraft enter Taiwan’s ADIZ, the MND would promptly release a public report the next day on the flight paths and types of aircraft that flew the sorties. These reports have proven invaluable in highlighting one element of Beijing’s coercive toolkit against Taiwan that is easy for the global public to understand and digest.
While the average person might have a difficult time understanding the nuances of a disinformation campaign generated by the CCP, they would easily be able to understand one of these reports. The type of aircraft flying into Taiwan’s ADIZ may not hold much significance for a layperson, but showing on a simple map how close a Chinese military aircraft flew to Taiwan is something that anyone can figure out.
Originally, the reports also included how Taiwan’s MND responded to each incursion – responses that evolved over time as the threat has increased. In 2020, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) would intercept the Chinese aircraft, radio warnings would be issued, and missile systems would track the aircraft. The radio warnings have occasionally resulted in derogatory comments made by the Chinese pilots.
However, intercepting each sortie became too expensive and wore down Taiwan’s pilots and aircraft, so the decision was made in March 2021 to no longer intercept each sortie. Only sorties under particular circumstances – circumstances that are not publicly released – would result in an intercept, and it is unknown, or unreported, if Taiwanese military aircraft have crossed the median line in response to Chinese incursions. As a result of the change to the intercept policy, the MND can no longer release images of the Chinese aircraft, and the tail numbers, conducting operations. Thus the MND is limited in the ability to publicize the service of the aircraft: are these People’s Liberation Army, Air Force, or Navy aircraft, and to what degree are these incursions joint operations?
Fast forward to 2023 and the reports have changed. Many of the changes have diminished the reports’ value and usefulness.
First, the timeframe for the reports has changed from 12 to 24 hours. The timeframe for reports runs from 06:00-06:00 across two days. This has created instances in which sorties are double counted and publicized on two consecutive days, as was the case on August 24 and 25 and August 27 and 28. The double counting has created confusion and uncertainty regarding the sorties. It makes more sense for the reporting window to run from midnight to midnight over one calendar day since few sorties are flown during the night hours
Second, response explanations have become very broad: “R.O.C. Armed Forces have monitored the situation and tasked CAP aircraft, Navy vessels, and land-based missile systems to respond [to] these activities.” This “response” is the typical and standard explanation, but does not really provide any useful information or specifics. There are no changes to this response, no matter how small or large the incursion is.
Finally and most importantly, the reporting of the aircraft has changed. The reports now mention naval vessels that have entered into relevant areas, but never provide the types of vessels (as is the case with aircraft) or routes of the ships. But more importantly, the language used in disclosing aircraft has changed and become increasingly confusing.
For example, for the report on September 27, 2023, the report said:
32 PLA aircraft and 8 PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] vessels around Taiwan were detected by 6 a.m.(UTC+8) today. 16 of the detected aircraft had entered Taiwan’s north, southwest and southeast ADIZ. R.O.C. Armed Forces have monitored the situation and tasked CAP aircraft, Navy vessels, and land-based missile systems to respond [to] these activities.
The flight paths of the 16 aircraft that entered the ADIZ are illustrated in the report, but there is no information on where the other aircraft flew, and why they were relevant for inclusion in the report. Are the aircraft flying over China’s Fujian and Zhejiang provinces without crossing the coast? Are they flying north or south of the ADIZ into the Western Pacific? Are they J-15s flying off of naval aircraft carriers east of Taiwan?
This is a case where more information is less helpful. If there is no additional information provided, then these aircraft should be excluded from the reports or included in a separate database as they are not relevant to the issues at stake in the ADIZ challenge. The same can be said for the tracked naval vessels: provide more information or exclude them.
Transparency is what brought this issue into the public discourse in the first place, but the changes to the reports has diminished their value and added confusion. The reports help to build trust between Taiwan’s government and military and its people, not to mention outsiders studying this topic. Other countries have taken a page out of Taiwan’s playbook to suit their own needs, and Taipei could benefit from mimicking these new practices.
The Biden administration, for instance, has released a tranche of videos and photographs of dangerous actions, behavior, and maneuvers by Chinese military personnel dating back to January 2022. The Department of Defense published video evidence of more than 180 intercepts of U.S. aircraft by Chinese fighters.
The most current and relevant example is how the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have used public and strategic communication to demonstrate Chinese coercion and aggression near Second Thomas Shoal.
Adopting a Philippine Model for Taiwan?
Over the last several weeks, the AFP has been in a renewed standoff with the Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines has an outpost on the grounded BRP Sierra Madre at the shoal. Still a commissioned vessel despite being grounded and unseaworthy, the Sierra Madre serves as an official demonstration of Philippine sovereignty in the contested shoal. There is an active deployment of Philippine troops on the outpost who require regular resupply missions.
In early August 2023, the Philippines chartered a resupply ship to go to the outpost, but during the journey, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel fired a water cannon to force the Philippine vessel to turn around. The incident was filmed on the Philippine vessel as it occurred – providing clear evidence of Chinese aggressive actions.
The Chinese military said that they would prevent the further resupply of the output and blockade any Philippine vessels from attempting to break through. The AFP called China’s bluff and broke through the blockade. Philippines’ Special Envoy to China and former Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, Jr., took part in the mission to monitor Chinese actions for himself in-person.
The issue has now reached a boiling point in October 2023, after a Chinese vessel intentionally rammed into a Philippine vessel attempting another resupply. The Chinese provocation has caused international condemnation of the action and greater support for the Philippines. Countries from all over the world have expressed support, though Taipei has remained silent on the issue.
By filming the water cannon incident, sending high-level government officials on the missions, and immediately releasing the information as it occurs, Manila has demonstrated one way to counter Chinese narrative-building. It is difficult for the Chinese government to dispel the notion of overreaction when there is physical evidence and recordings. It’s easy for anyone to understand why firing a water cannon or intentionally ramming a ship is going too far.
Taiwan should take a page out of this playbook and overshare such information in real time. The information that the Philippines shares shows, on the face of it, a mission failure or demonstration of being over-matched by China. But it grabs the headlines, shows how irresponsibly China acts in the region, and garners immense international support for the Philippine cause. For the Philippines, it is clear that sharing and publicizing the information has improved its cause, especially considering the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines against China in 2016 regarding matters of sovereignty in the South China Sea.
While Taiwan lacks international institutional support for any similar issue, it should seriously consider increasing the amount and the nature of the information shared with the public. Filming very obvious Chinese over-reach and over-match will gain Taiwan more international support and sympathy – this consideration should outweigh the worry of demoralizing military personnel and the greater public. When the MND first released its ADIZ reports, it made headlines across the world, and outlets like CNN would cover the incursions on primetime television. Despite a consistent increase in PLA activity, coverage on the issue has decreased; this is in no small part due to the lack of transparency from the MND.
As the Chinese military threat continues to increase, decision makers in Taipei need to determine how to change its communications strategy in order to get back into the news cycle. The surest way of such an outcome is the increase of information sharing and transparency. In order to achieve this goal, the MND will need to backtrack on many recent decisions to maximize the impact of its reporting.