Some People’s Liberation Army aircraft, including bombers, fighter jets, and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, flew east from the Chinese coast around the southern tip of Taiwan. The rest broke off and shot a little further south to small Pratas Island in the South China Sea before returning.
The PLA has been flying close to the atoll – uninhabited except for a garrison of Taiwanese marines and coast guards – on average once a week since Sept. 16, when the Taiwan Ministry of Defense began releasing detailed data. If all the raids on the Taiwanese air defense zone between Pratas and mainland China are included, the patrols have become an almost daily occurrence.
The drills point to Beijing’s displeasure with the democratically elected government in Taipei and its successful attempt to gain more support from the US, as stated in a statement in this week’s Group of Seven communiqué. In response to China’s actions, President Joe Biden’s administration has stepped up surveillance flights at Pratas, raising the risk of a confrontation or clash between two of the world’s most powerful armies.
China’s focus on Pratas serves several purposes of President Xi Jinping, highlighting Taiwan’s vulnerability to attack as it examines its defenses. The strategy also tests the limits of Washington’s security obligations, and whether it is willing to go to war to defend largely empty reefs hundreds of miles from the nearest US base.
The air campaign shows Beijing has potential to deal a blow to Taipei that is lagging far behind in a dangerous invasion across the 130-kilometer-long Taiwan Strait, which is becoming an increasingly urgent concern for US military planners. Taking Pratas Island – which is closer to Hong Kong than Taiwan – could give China a new starting point for future military operations without provoking a large-scale conflict with the US
“There is now a serious possibility that China wants to occupy one of the outer islands,” Ben Schreer, who studies Taiwan’s defense policy and heads the security studies and criminology department at Macquarie University in Sydney. “If that happens, what is the international community going to do? What is the US going to do?”
Even if Xi has no immediate plans to seize any land, regular raids help establish China’s long-standing presence in the territory it claims to own. Meanwhile, the drumming of the exercises is adding to the domestic political concerns of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who rejects Beijing’s claims to sovereignty.
The campaign has put new pressure on Taiwan’s aging air force, which has suffered three fatal crashes in the past nine months. The agency announced in March that it expected to spend NT$2.1 billion ($76 million) more this year to curb PLA operations.
China’s fighter jets made more raids on the southern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone last year than in the previous five years combined. While Beijing blames the exercises for Tsai’s refusal to accept that both sides belong to “one China”, the rise has been accompanied by US efforts to ramp up arms sales and diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan.
Tuesday’s operation came after the G-7 called for a “peaceful settlement” of the dispute in a statement that was more critical of China than in previous communiqués. “We urge the countries concerned to fulfill their promise to China and to properly handle the Taiwan issue and to stop sending false signals to Taiwanese separatist forces,” said Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office, in Beijing on Wednesday. against reporters.
Such exercises help “run military simulations according to a real battle plan and rehearse in the real environment,” Song Zhongping, a former PLA missile technology instructor, told a social media account of the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper.
Although the Taiwanese army has expressed confidence in its ability to defend Pratas, it is said to operate more than 400 kilometers from the coast and face the world’s largest navy. Taiwan has made efforts to improve its defenses around the atoll, bolster the garrison with 200 Marines, send anti-armor missiles and restart a stalled project to upgrade the local airstrip.
Another concern for Taiwan is a permanent loss of control over the airspace between the main island and its territories in the South China Sea, as Taipei tries to avoid close clashes with China that could escalate into a clash.
Chinese state media have hinted at an expansion of the strategy amid domestic calls for a tougher response to US measures. The Global Times newspaper, which last year said Beijing was considering military flights directly over Taiwan, reported that China could retaliate earlier this month over a visit by a US C-17 cargo plane by sending patrols closer to Taipei.
Enodo Economics, an independent macroeconomic and political forecasting firm focused on China, increased the likelihood of a US-China military conflict to 65% in March, compared to 10% in January 2019.
“While a surprise attack on Taiwan is possible, a more typical Chinese approach would be to step up threats with a view to both eroding Taiwan’s will to resist and providing retrospective justification for its actions,” said Diana Choyleva. , chief economist at Enodo. China is currently trying to bring about reunification through a ‘grey zone’ campaign of mounting pressure, convinced that time is on its side and that the PLA will be able to surpass the US in the Taiwan Strait in the coming years. “
The flights show China is showing its ability to project troops far from its coast, potentially encircling Taiwan and denying the US access to potential battlefields. Without troops on Taiwan, the bulk of US forces would be deployed during conflict from their main bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, hundreds of miles away.
US warships in the western Pacific that want to intervene near Pratas must pass through the Bashi Canal, which separates southern Taiwan from the northern Philippines. Accordingly, the PLA has made nine flights to the channel since September, providing the long-range H-6 bombers with a route to the open sea while picking up data on rival defense systems and making the pilots feel more comfortable.
China also tested anti-ship missiles in the South China Sea last year, in what Admiral Phil Davidson of the US Indo-Pacific Command called an “undeniable message” of the country’s focus on “countering any potential third-party intervention during a regional crisis.” The PLA Air Force separately released a video in September showing H-6 bombers launching a simulated attack on a runway that resembled a runway at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam.
The US has tried to prove its commitment to ensuring the security of key shipping routes within the so-called first island chain, which includes the Philippines, Japan and Taiwan. The Pentagon has roughly doubled reconnaissance missions over the South China Sea this year, according to Peking University’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, with 72 such patrols last month.
Many of those flights were over the Bashi Channel, according to sites that track military air traffic. In a written response to questions from Bloomberg News last month, Lieutenant Mark Langford, a spokesman for the US Seventh Fleet, last declined to provide details about such flights, citing the need to maintain “operational security.”
All these military activities increase the risk of confrontation, such as the crisis that broke out in April 2001 when a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. Two dozen American crewmen were detained for 11 days after an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
The Biden administration has again called on China to open a hotline to prevent misunderstandings between the two sides from escalating into a conflict, with little success so far.
“I’m concerned about accidental clashes with tragic consequences given the PLA’s aggressive actions near Taiwan and other countries,” said Shirley Kan, an independent Asian security specialist who previously worked for the US Congressional Research Service. “China is playing a dangerous game.”
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