A problem in recent public commentary on tensions between China and Taiwan has been a conflation of what we know and what we fear. Nowhere is this more evident than on the topic of incursions by Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, or ADIZ.
This month saw a shift from a pattern of incremental increases in the number of People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft participating in coordinated incursions into Taiwanese airspace to an exponential explosion. The campaign peaked at 56 aircraft on 4 October, with 159 over the four-day period of 1–4 October. The increase has prompted concerns that the threat of war across the Taiwan Strait is escalating.
But are these fears justified?
Overall, incidences of Chinese jets entering Taiwan’s airspace while flying directly towards the island have been rare this year. This is particularly the case for China’s often mentioned ‘nuclear capable’ Xian H-6 strategic bombers. Since 22 May, H-6 bombers have entered Taiwan’s airspace on only seven of the 82 days in which incursions were recorded. While a record of 12 H-6 bombers entered the ADIZ on 4 October, neither on this occasion nor on any other during this period were they headed towards the island.
By comparison, Shaanxi Y-8 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft have been by far the most commonly observed aircraft, appearing on 59 of those 82 days. And like recent incursions involving H-6 bombers, these aircraft almost invariably headed away from, rather than towards, Taiwan. They typically cut across the ADIZ through the Taixinan Basin more than 200 kilometres south of Taiwan island—an area that is both strategically vital and suited to submarine warfare—and were heading towards the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines. The flight paths of most of these incursions varied little.
ASW aircraft can track submarine activity and, depending on the technology they’re equipped with, scan and map the seabed. The message their frequent incursions are sending is clear: China is undertaking exploratory or preliminary work aimed at mapping and/or preparing a passage for its navy through the first island chain via the Bashi Channel. It may also be positioning itself to cut off Taiwan’s key maritime and aviation lifelines—which Taiwanese experts predict China will be able to do by 2025.
Other features of the incursions tell a similar story. According to data from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence, almost all aerial incursions over the past six months have occurred in the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ and have followed three paths—heading in a southeasterly direction towards the Bashi Channel, heading in that direction and turning northeast along the periphery of the east side of Taiwan’s ADIZ, and winding around Taiwan’s Dongsha Island, which lies almost 450 kilometres south of Taiwan.
Incursions near Dongsha Island, also known as Pratas Island, have been performed most regularly by Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, which have surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. H-6 bombers have also flown by the island but were almost certainly used in a reconnaissance role. Specialist reconnaissance aircraft; electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft and electronic warfare aircraft (and, earlier in the year, uncrewed surveillance drones) have also flown close to the island. While ASW sweeps have usually been unescorted, these flights have often coincided with fighter sorties. The latter have invariably cut between, or come close to cutting between, Taiwan and Dongsha Island.
Much has been written about the possibility that China could seize Dongsha Island, which is uninhabited except for a small military garrison. Fighter incursions may appear menacing, but surveillance and reconnaissance sweeps are more worrying because they can produce actionable intelligence for an invasion. Yet the emergence of fighters between Taiwan and Dongsha are also significant. If China wants to secure a maritime route through to the Bashi Channel, it would want to cut off or control the island, which lies close to the route it is likely to prefer. It would also want to shrink or claim for itself the southern section of Taiwan’s ADIZ so that it controls the airspace above this route.
In the Greco-Persian Wars in the 5th century BC, the Persian king Darius famously demanded ‘earth and water’—a euphemism for total subjugation. Yet it seems that the more immediate objective of China’s incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ has been seizing ‘water’ as opposed to ‘earth’. This makes sense when we consider that the trigger for the early October wave of flights appears to have been US-led naval exercises in the western Pacific, as opposed to political developments inside Taiwan. It also makes sense when we consider that the southwest section of the ADIZ has been identified as ‘one of the American military’s major areas of operation in the South China Sea’.
This does not, however, mean that Taiwan is out of the woods. The first island chain constrains China’s aspirations to use its navy to project power. And with Taiwan between the two break-out points that lead directly into the Pacific—the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait—some in Beijing fear that America could ‘use Taiwan to keep China in check’ by promoting closer military cooperation. Such fears may have prompted previous incursions, such as the 12 June wave of 28 aircraft that followed soon after three US senators visited Taiwan, and the 12 April 12 wave of 25 aircraft, which occurred the day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned China’s ‘increasingly aggressive actions’. Blinken was not wrong to call China out, but criticisms need to remain grounded in the facts.
Western critiques accused of misstating the nature and immediacy of the threat China poses to Taiwan are increasingly viewed by Beijing as being in bad faith and aimed at cajoling Taiwan’s ‘collusion in the agenda to constrain China’s rise. The danger of reactive commentary is thus not only that it might misidentify the China threat, but that it could also serve to augment it.
Corey Lee Bell is a postdoctoral researcher in Taiwan. He has a PhD from Melbourne University’s Asia Institute and is a former editor of Taiwan Insight. This first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist.