China sends 19 aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone

Sortie by People’s Liberation Army air force includes fighter jets and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons

China’s military sent 19 aircraft into Taiwan’s “air defence identification zone” on Sunday, including several nuclear-capable bombers, on the eve of Taipei’s annual war games exercises.

The sortie by China’s People’s Liberation Army air force was one of the largest in weeks, and included 10 J-16 and four Su-30 fighters, as well as four H-6 bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons, and an anti-submarine aircraft.

The planes flew a short distance from the coast of China towards the southern tip of Taiwan, north of the disputed Pratas Island, and into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (Adiz). The area is not Taiwan’s territorial airspace but the sorties provoke Taiwan’s air force to scramble jets in response, and on Sunday missile monitoring systems were also deployed.

PLA flights towards Taiwan have increased in the last 18 months, with periods of near-daily flights involving a usually small number of planes. The largest recorded was 28 planes sent in June. Planes have also been sent past Taiwan and up the island’s east coast.

While activity has been increasing generally, large incursions by the PLA usually appear to be in response to particular events, for instance US arms sales to Taiwan, or military activity in or near the Taiwan Strait.

It was not clear what prompted Sunday’s action, but Taiwan’s annual large scale live-fire exercises are set to begin next weekend, with rehearsal drills held on Monday. In recent weeks, military vessels from the US and the UK have also sailed through the region, with a US warship and a US Coast Guard cutter going through the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwan strait and nearby South China and East China Seas are geopolitically sensitive and the site of increasing Chinese expansionist activities. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China under what it calls the “one China principle”, and has not ruled out the use of force to “reunite” it. It considers the Tsai Ing-wen-led Taiwanese government to be separatist. Tsai’s administration maintains that Taiwan is already an independent state.

There is growing speculation over the likelihood of Beijing, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, deciding to move on Taiwan. The potential circumstances and timing is vociferously debated, but there is general consensus that the risk is higher now than it has been for decades.

In a report to parliament last month, Taiwan’s defence ministry said China has the capability to “paralyse” the island’s defences, including through cyber-attacks, Reuters reported.

China “can combine with its internet army to launch wired and wireless attacks against the global internet, which would initially paralyse our air defences, command of the sea and counter-attack system abilities, presenting a huge threat to us”, the ministry’s report said.

As China has become more isolated on the world stage, modernised its military, and expanded its activities in border and disputed regions, tensions have grown between its government and Taiwan and its supporters. The US maintains a policy that does not guarantee or rule out coming to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an attack, but under president Donald Trump the US increased its arms sales to Taiwan, and the Biden administration has reaffirmed support.

Japan has also become increasingly vocal with its concerns over the China threat. Its deputy prime minister remarked in July that an attack on Taiwan could be considered an existential threat to Japan – which would trigger constitutional permissions for the country to engage militarily. Under a 2015 reinterpretation of its pacifist, post-second world war constitution, Japan says it can use force to come to the aid of an ally, with the justification that failing to do so could endanger Japan.


Helen Davidson in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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