IIT WAS A deliberate provocation, patriotically timed. On October 1, the country’s national holiday, China flew 38 planes, including fighter jets and bombers, to Taiwan (one guy, the J-16, is shown). They entered the island’s air defense identification area (ADIZ), a buffer region where intrusions often trigger military alerts. It was the daily record of the year. Over the next three days, China sent another 111 planes. In response, Taiwan jammed planes, issued warnings, and tracked the Chinese plane with missile systems. The island’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, called it “the most difficult situation I have seen in over 40 years of my military life.”
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The skies around Taiwan were calmer as The Economist went to press. On October 6, China did not fly any military planes in the ADIZ. So far, none of the flights have crossed Taiwan’s territorial airspace, which stretches 12 nautical miles (about 22 km) from the island. Intruders typically fly 35 nautical miles or more from the Taiwanese coast. But US officials clearly share Mr. Chiu’s concern. On October 6, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to end its “provocative” activities near Taiwan. Also on that day, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden, voiced US concern during a meeting in Switzerland with Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat and Politburo member. in power.
China is shameless. Its state media described the sorties as a demonstration of the country’s ability to conduct “a wartime air attack.” In recent years, China has stepped up demonstrations of its growing military capability, especially at sea and in the air, as a warning to Taiwan. His message is that if the island refuses to accept China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, China can use force. Mr. Chiu, a retired general, told the Taiwanese parliament on October 6 that China would be able to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025, at a cost the Communist Party in Beijing might consider bearable.
from Taiwan ADIZ stretches over part of the Chinese coast, so it’s no surprise that Chinese military planes often fly there (see map). But China has started to probe parts of the ADIZ much closer to the island, skirting the southwest end of what is known as the “middle line,” an informal border in the Taiwan Strait halfway between the island and the mainland. China now performs such flights near southern Taiwan almost daily. They could be intended to wear down Taiwan’s defenses (its Air Force is much smaller than China’s) and condition it to treat large sorties as normal in order to make it easier for China to disguise the former. phase of an exercise attack.
It is extremely difficult to assess China’s intentions. He loves saber blows when he feels Taiwan is getting too close to asserting permanent separation from China, or when America is getting closer to the island. Recent releases may be linked to such developments. Earlier this year, the Biden administration obtained public statements of support for Taiwan from the European Union, the g7, Japan and South Korea. September was a particularly boring month: Taiwan requested entry into a trans-Pacific free trade group right after China made the same request and American and British warships crossed the Taiwan Strait. On September 15, America, Britain and Australia entered into a security partnership, AUKUS, which is seen in Beijing as an alliance to control China. In the days that followed, China stepped up its flights to Taiwan ADIZ.
If Chinese planes were to come close to the airspace over the island itself, it’s unclear how Taiwan would react. Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, said Taiwanese pilots should not be the first to fire, at least not without explicit orders. Taiwan’s latest quadrennial defense review, produced this year, was vague on this, saying only that the island’s responses are expected to strengthen as Chinese planes approach the island.
Some analysts wonder if a Taiwanese fighter would be allowed to fire anything other than a warning shot, even if a Chinese plane flew over Taiwanese territory. In a forthcoming article, two American think-tankers, Bonny Lin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations, note Taiwanese press articles claiming that Taiwan may have divided its airspace into three areas of engagement. : a 30 nautical mile “surveillance zone”, a 24 nautical mile “warning zone” and a 12 nautical mile “destruction zone”. Ms. Lin and Mr. Sacks claim that if an engagement were to result in the death of a pilot, even accidentally, “both sides would be ill-equipped” to control tensions.
There have been no such victims since 1958. But accidents have occurred nearby. In 2001, an air collision off the coast of southern China between a Chinese hunter and a US Navy spy plane killed the Chinese pilot. The paralyzed US plane landed on a Chinese military air base. Ten days of tension ensued before the crew was cleared to leave. Twenty years later, such an encounter can be much more difficult to resolve. Relations between America and China are considerably worse. China suspended official contacts with Taiwan after Ms. Tsai became president in 2016 and has not endorsed the Beijing leadership’s view that there is only “one China.”
If a crisis were to strike the skies over Taiwan, nationalist sentiment in China could complicate matters further. World time, a chauvinist party tabloid in Beijing, said in April that if Ms Tsai’s government continued its “hostile” behavior (working closely with America counts as such, he suggested), Chinese fighter jets are said to be prepared to fly over the island and ignore the “red line” relating to territorial airspace. Ms. Tsai seems unfazed. In a future issue of Foreign Affairs, she writes that Taiwan hopes to “take on more responsibility by being a close political and economic partner to the United States and other like-minded countries.” She warns that the people of Taiwan “will rise up if Taiwan’s very existence is threatened.” Words like that will not stop the exits, nor will they allay fears that an incident could turn into something much more bloody. ■
Cartoon by KAL on the one-China policy (October 7)
Joe Biden is determined that China does not move America (July 17)
Most Dangerous Place on Earth (May 1)
How Taiwan Became a Flashpoint for US-China-US Relations (April 29)
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Too Close for Comfort”