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Taiwan Has a Problem: China Has Gone ‘Mad for Drones’

China's GJ-11 Sharp Sword Drone
Image: Creative Commons.

The China’s military has made some significant progress over the last few years, building things like stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and now drones. Taiwan is going to have to counter them, somehow, someway. What happens next? 

China’s drones have been a consistent part of its military activity around Taiwan in recent weeks, demonstrating new capabilities and applying increased pressure on the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory.

Drone flights, often by small civilian models, over Taiwan’s outlying islands are among China’s more visible pressure tactics, and experts and officials worry such actions risk turning high tensions into outright conflict.

China launched a series of military exercises around Taiwan following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island on August 3. The exercises included live-fire drills over and around the island and repeated flights by Chinese aircraft across the median line, an unofficial but long-acknowledged boundary in the Taiwan Strait.

The first post-trip overflight involving Chinese drones was reported hours after Pelosi left, when Taiwanese troops fired flares at two drones over Kinmen County — a group of Taiwanese islands a few miles off the coast of the Chinese city of Xiamen.

Maj. Gen. Chang Jung-shun of the Taiwanese army’s Kinmen Defense Command told local media that it was the first time he could recall Kinmen units taking such action.

On the night of August 5, Taiwan’s army said troops in Kinmen detected four drones and fired flares to warn them away. Taiwan’s army said similar aircraft were spotted around Taiwan’s Matsu archipelago, which is off China’s coast to the north of Kinmen, around the same time.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said on August 7 that its forces were on alert and deploying to monitor Chinese aircraft, ships, and drones that were “simulating attacks on the island of Taiwan.”

China said its exercises around Taiwan were complete on August 10, but it has maintained a high level of naval and air activity around the island. (Taiwan began its own drills, which it said were defensive, on August 9.)

China’s “high-intensity” operations in early August, “including the use of drones to intrude [over] Taiwan’s offshore islands,” were “irrational and provocative,” Maj. Min-Han Hsieh said Wednesday at a Taiwanese Defense Ministry briefing.

“In response, Taiwan’s military immediately lifted alertness and enhanced combat readiness, adhering to the principles of preparing for a war without seeking one,” added Hsieh, an officer in the Office of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Operations and Planning.

Drone flights over Taiwanese territory continued throughout the month, drawing international attention and stronger responses from Taiwan.

On August 16, a civilian drone from mainland China flew over a Kinmen islet, photographing and filming Taiwanese troops, some of whom threw rocks at the drone. The footage was widely shared on Chinese social media.

The final days of August saw more drone flights over Taiwan’s offshore islands and off of Taiwan’s east coast, where local observers estimated a drone circled for an hour on August 30.

That drone flew through the Miyako Strait, between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima, and Japan scrambled fighter jets to intercept it.

Taiwan’s army said on August 29 that it would adopt a four-step response to such drone flights: “firing warning flares, reporting the incursion, expelling the drone, and ultimately shooting it down.”

Taiwanese troops acted on that procedure hours later, firing warning shots at three drones that flew over parts of Kinmen on August 30. Taiwan’s military described them as “civilian use” drones and said they returned to Xiamen after the shots were fired.

On Thursday, Taiwanese forces shot down a drone for the first time. Chang, the Kinmen Defense Command spokesman, said the drone flew from Xiamen and was over restricted waters around a Kinmen islet when Taiwanese troops initiated the procedure, “warning it off before shooting it down after it failed to leave the area.”

Kinmen and Matsu are just a few miles from mainland China, and Beijing has long used activity around those islands to pressure Taipei. A small Chinese civilian plane flew near a Matsu island in February in what Taiwan’s military said may have been a test of its responses.

‘A whole new level’

While Taiwanese officials identified many of the drones involved in recent overflights as civilian, China’s military has invested heavily in an array of unmanned aircraft and watercraft.

“I watch Chinese military news every night, and more or less, every exercise now incorporates drones in some way,” Lyle Goldstein said at an August 10 event hosted by Defense Priorities, where Goldstein directs the Asia Engagement program.

Drones “would figure huge” in a future Chinese military action, Goldstein said, adding that China was “mad for drones” before Russia attacked Ukraine in February, “but the Ukraine war has taken it to a whole new level.”

The distance covered by some Chinese military drones was surprising, according to Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies Program at MIT, who said flights through Japan’s Ryukyu Islands northeast of Taiwan appeared to be a new step.

It may not be surprising that China would want to access the Pacific through those islands, Fravel, an expert on the Chinese military, said at the Defense Priorities event.

“On the other hand, if it is new, then that reflects kind of forward progress in terms of the Chinese air force or Chinese surveillance systems more generally and that they’re going to have much greater reach in ways that can support targeting of ships,” Fravel added.

Small, low-flying drones also offer specific benefits to Beijing’s operations around Taiwan.

“A drone that is slower and has more endurance is a better option for this type of operation where you’re just simply trying to be above, to make sure that you’re seen, to be annoying and harassing and a little bit menacing,” Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, said at an event on August 11.

Drones, especially civilian models, are also cheaper and are seen as less likely to draw the same level of response as manned military aircraft, but China’s continued drone flights and Taiwan’s promise to respond have raised concerns about escalation.

Taiwan has so far responded relatively strongly to Chinese drone flights, Charles Chong-Han Wu, a visiting fellow with the Stimson Center’s East Asia Program, said at the August 11 event.

There are likely to be more such flights around Kinmen and Matsu, Wu said, adding that China may also “step to more of this kind of gray-zone coercion” around Taiwan’s main island.

For its part, Taiwan is increasing investment in military drones, drawing lessons about their utility from the war in Ukraine.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in June that the first 14 of 50 tactical short-range drones would arrive before the end of the year. In August, a Taiwanese lawmaker said Taipei had agreed to buy four US-made MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones.

China Drones

A Kazakh Air Force CAIG Wing Loong during a Defender of the Fatherland Day parade on Independence Square in Nur-Sultan. These drones were made by China.

Taipei is also strengthening its anti-drone defenses, including plans to install radars and defense systems to detect and jam and potentially shoot down drones around its islands.

Taiwan’s president has urged Taiwanese forces to be “more stable” in the face of a “more provocative enemy” but has also ordered the military to take “necessary and strong countermeasures,” a call that military leaders have echoed.

Maj. Gen. Jyun-Jie Wang of the Political Warfare Bureau at Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said at the briefing Wednesday that Taiwanese forces would continue to “exercise self-restraint.”

“However, we will take necessary repellent measures as proper response to the situation to ensure our national security,” Wang added. “Let me stress that China continues to make it a habit to conduct gray-zone operations to create divisions and differences within Taiwan’s society.”

Christopher Woody is an editor on the Military & Defense team at Insider (where this first appeared), where he commissions and edits freelance stories and reports on defense and security issues. He is based in Washington, DC.

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Christopher Woody writes and edits stories on military issues, defense policy, and foreign affairs. He is based in Washington, DC.