A Chengdu J-10 fighter of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Photo by mxiong via Wikimedia Commons.
The skies above the Taiwan Strait teemed with warplanes on Friday, highlighting the new normal of Beijing’s military brinkmanship as tensions with Washington and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region continue to rise.
The visit by Keith Krach, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, to Taiwan on Thursday signaled that Washington is committed to defending the island nation against Chinese aggression. True to form, Beijing reacted against the high-level US visit by sending 18 warplanes, including bombers and fighters, across the midline of the Taiwan Strait on Friday.
“This is a legitimate and necessary action taken in response to the current situation across the Taiwan Strait and the safeguarding of national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a Friday morning press conference.
Taiwanese air force jets scrambled 17 times during a four-hour period on Friday morning to deter China’s warplanes, Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper reported, adding that missile defense systems had also been activated.
This latest round of tit-for-tat military maneuvers underscores the heightened military tensions that arise every time the US and Taiwan deepen their ties and Beijing resultantly flexes its military muscle in protest. Altogether, Friday’s military brinkmanship edges the ongoing tension between Taipei and Beijing closer to outright conflict, many experts warn.
Krach, who is the most senior state department official to visit the island in 41 years, is expected to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday. Krach will be in Taiwan for three days and will also attend a memorial service in Taiwan for late President Lee Teng-hui on Saturday.
The trip comes just over a month after another senior US official, Health Secretary Alex Azar, visited Taiwan to discuss matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Azar was the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since 1979.
During Azar’s Aug. 10 visit, China scrambled fighter jets into the Taiwan Strait, spurring the island nation to activate its air defense missile systems. Beijing similarly responded to Krach’s visit by ordering more war games near the Taiwan Strait on Friday.
Friday’s drills marked the highest number of Chinese warplanes ever recorded for such an exercise near the Taiwan Strait, the South China Morning Post reported.
The Chinese aircraft operating near Taiwan on Friday comprised two H-6 bombers, eight J-16 fighters, four J-10 fighters, and four J-11 fighters, Taiwan’s defense ministry reported Friday, adding that the Chinese warplanes crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait and entered Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone.
The US armed forces set the boundaries of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, after World War II. An ADIZ is not a legal territorial boundary, but a limit past which aircraft should identify themselves when approaching a country’s airspace.
At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Chinese Nationalist forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek retreated from the Chinese mainland and established an autonomous government on Taiwan called the Republic of China. Communist China has continued to claim Taiwan as its sovereign territory.
In 1971, Taiwan was booted from the United Nations, and many countries have refused to officially recognize the autonomous island nation for fear of sparking reprisal from Beijing. Today, only 15 countries officially recognize Taiwan.
While the US does not formally recognize Taiwan, Washington has greenlighted billions of dollars in weapons sales to Taipei over the past decades — including missiles, missile defense systems, and F-16 fighters — and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act pledges US support should mainland China ever invade.
The Obama administration authorized $14 billion in arms sales to Taiwan over eight years, the Wall Street Journal reported. President Donald Trump has continued that support, pledging $7 billion this year on top of $15 billion in arms his administration has already sold to Taipei.
The latest arms sales to Taiwan include armed drones, cruise missiles, mines, and other materiel. In August, the Trump administration approved the sale of 66 F-16 fighters to Taiwan over a decade. For Beijing, these military deals between the US and Taiwan have become a major irritant, prompting pushback — both diplomatically and through military signaling.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has firm will, full confidence, and sufficient capabilities to thwart all external interference and separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ren, the Chinese military spokesman, said on Friday.
Across the Indo-Pacific region, both China and the US are jostling for influence over island nations for the sake of gaining strategic military advantage. Establishing a far-reaching footprint in the region will allow the US to forward deploy military forces — including long-range, precision strike weapons — which are meant to deter China from aggressive power grabs that threaten the status quo balance of power.
Greater sway over the Pacific region would expand China’s regional economic and military influence and undercut Taiwan’s network of regional allies. Some warn, however, that tensions between China and the US are edging away from innocuous diplomatic sparring and increasingly toward military competition. Thus, as China and the US continue their military maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific region, the danger of a military clash is trending upward.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said this week that China is America’s top security threat in the long run, calling for a massive naval buildup to counter Beijing’s rising military power.
“Beijing’s aggression and disregard of its commitments in the South and East China Seas — such as the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel and escorting of Chinese fishing fleets into the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and the Philippines — are further examples of the Communist Party’s attempts to reshape and undermine the international order that has benefited nations, large and small,” Esper said during a speech at the Rand Corp. on Sept. 16.