China Flexes Military Muscle in Western Pacific
Military aircraft of the People’s Republic of China conducted a series of drills in the Western Pacific this past week, ranging from a number of “encirclement patrols” around the island of Taiwan starting on Dec. 11 to the first-ever Chinese military flight through the Tsushima Strait on Dec. 18.
Drills carried out on Dec. 11 by China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) involved long-range strategic H-6K bombers, Su-30 and J-11 fighter jets, and support aircraft from China’s Southern and Eastern Theatre Commands flying over the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan and the Philippines, along with missions in the Miyako Strait, near the Japanese island of Okinawa. PLAAF spokesperson Shen Jinke confirmed that other PLAAF aircrafts “have flown routes that circled the island of Taiwan, further improving [PLAAF] ability to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Pictures of Chinese warplanes flying with mountains in the background were posted on the same day on Chinese media sites, with Chinese media outlets claiming the mountains to be “Taiwan’s mountains,” causing much consternation in Taiwanese media. Taiwan’s Ministry of
National Defense issued a statement that noted the flight paths of the Chinese aircraft and deployment of Taiwanese ships and aircraft to monitor the PLAAF warplanes.
On Dec. 17, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed a second PLAAF mission to have flown along the same flight paths as the earlier Dec. 11 mission and stated that National Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan “took command at the joint operations command center and monitored naval and aerial intelligence” on the PLAAF maneuvers. Japan’s Ministry of Defense confirmed the Chinese drills and identified three PLAAF support aircraft as having flown the route.
The following day, South Korea and Japan mobilized fighter jets in response to PLAAF aircraft breaching the Air Defense Identification Zones of both countries in the Tsushima Strait. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that five Chinese warplanes were detected “infringing on the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone from the southwest of Ieo Island,” thus prompting South Korean fighter jets to make an “emergency sortie.” Japan’s Ministry of Defense confirmed the presence of two H-6K bombers, two Su-30 fighter jets, and two support aircraft had entered and exited the Sea of Japan on Dec. 18. Defense ministries of both South Korea and Japan acknowledged that the PLAAF did not violate South Korean or Japanese airspace in separate statements issued later on the same day.
Spokesman Chen Chung-ji of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, in remarks on Dec. 19, asserted “Taiwan will scramble jets armed with missiles if necessary in response to China’s increased military activity near Taiwan.” He also urged the Taiwanese public to not panic and said the “armed forces have the confidence and ability to safeguard national security.”
The drills carried out by the PLAAF come as relations between Taiwan and China continue to deteriorate and Beijing seeks to assert its military presence and uncompromising stance regarding the status of Taiwan. Earlier this month, an invasion threat made by a senior Chinese diplomat led to a war of words between the foreign ministries of Taipei and Beijing. While China continues to maintain a policy of “peaceful unification” regarding Taiwan, Chinese diplomatic statements regarding Taiwan and the passage of the “Anti-Secession Law” by China’s legislature in 2005 leave the option of China using military force to compel unification on the table.
The situation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is further complicated by the diplomatic intricacies regarding the “One China policy” and Taiwan’s numerous economic and military ties with other countries. Earlier this month, Taiwan inked a wide-ranging economic deal with the Philippines, even though Manila formally does not recognize the government in Taipei. Likewise, although the United States does not formally recognize Taiwan, a national security strategy document published on Dec. 19 asserts continued US commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), including providing for “Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs” to “deter coercion.”
China maintains a great deal of suspicion with regards to any possibility of a Taiwanese declaration of independence, especially under the current administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Certain experts have suggested that the recent increased number of military drills carried out by China suggests that Beijing is gearing up for unification by force.