Tensions escalate as Chinese flights near Taiwan escalate

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – With a record number of military flights near Taiwan over the past week, China has shown new military intensity and sophistication as it intensifies its harassment of the island which it claims as its own and affirms its territorial ambitions in the region.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army flew 56 planes in international airspace off the southwest coast of Taiwan on Monday, setting a new record and capping four days of sustained pressure involving 149 flights. The actions came as China, with growing diplomatic and military might, faces further setback from countries in the region and as Taiwan pleads for more support and global recognition.

The United States called China’s latest actions “risky” and “unsettling,” while China responded that the United States selling arms to Taiwan and its ships sailing the Taiwan Strait were provocative.

Along with the flights, the United States has stepped up naval maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific with its allies, challenging Beijing’s territorial claims over critical waterways.

Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told lawmakers on Wednesday that the situation “is the most serious in 40 years since I enlisted.”

While most agree that war is not imminent, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has warned that the stakes are higher if Beijing follows through on past threats to take the island by force if necessary.

“If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system,” she wrote in a passionate editorial in Foreign Affairs magazine published on Tuesday. “It would indicate that in today’s global competition for values, authoritarianism trumps democracy.”

China regularly flies military planes in Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone”, an international airspace that Taiwan counts as a buffer in its defense strategy, although previous flights have typically involved a handful of planes. to the maximum.

Perhaps more important than the number of planes was the constitution of the group, with fighters, bombers and airborne early warning planes, said Euan Graham, defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. from Singapore.

“It’s the level of sophistication – it looks like a strike plan, and that’s part of the increased pressure,” he said. “It’s not a few fighters who come closer and then come back directly after putting a wing above the median; it’s a much more focused maneuver.

Control of Taiwan and its airspace is key to China’s military strategy, the area where the most recent sorties have taken place also leading to the western Pacific and the South China Sea.

The latest moves bring the total number of flights to more than 815 as of Monday since the Taiwanese government began releasing the figures just over a year ago.

China has rapidly upgraded and strengthened its military, and the most recent flights demonstrate a greater level of technical expertise and power, said Chen-Yi Tu, a researcher at the National Defense and Security Research Institute. from Taiwan.

This is a stark contrast to 20 or 30 years ago, when Chinese forces couldn’t refuel in the air or fly over water, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. from Stanford University and senior non-resident. researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC

“I think China is trying to remind the United States and Taiwan that they don’t, that they have options,” she said. “They can do whatever they want, they won’t be discouraged.”

At the same time, many democracies have increasingly expressed their support for Taiwan and stepped up naval operations in the region.

While China was on its most recent flights, 17 ships from six navies – the United States, Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand – including three aircraft carriers and one Japanese helicopter carriers – carried out joint maneuvers off the Japanese island of Okinawa, northeast of Taiwan, intended to demonstrate their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Days earlier, the British frigate HMS Richmond passed through the Taiwan Strait, announcing its presence on Twitter and angering China, which condemned the move as a “senseless display of presence with insidious intent.”

The international actions are an attempt to counter China’s frequent claim that its own actions are in response to U.S. initiatives, and demonstrate that democracies intend to uphold established maritime laws and standards, Graham said.

“When the UK sends a ship across the Taiwan Strait for the first time since 2008 and has sailed along the middle line, the point is it knows China knows where that line is. “, did he declare. “For the status quo to have any meaning it must be respected and the most emphatic way to do it is to physically protest with a government asset like a warship.”

Australia, which has also spoken out against recent flights from China, last month announced an agreement with the United States and Britain to obtain nuclear-powered submarines, which were seen as a strong statement that she planned to play a bigger role.

And Japan, which has long been cautious in its dealings with China, a key trading partner, now views the country as a security threat amid Beijing’s increasingly assertive activity in and around regional seas. of the Taiwan Strait. New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said dialogue with China is important, but that Japan should also team up with like-minded democracies and step up its security alliance with the United States and other partners while that Tokyo is also strengthening its defense capabilities.

“We are seeing a slow emergence of a kind of coalition of democracies in the region that are trying to come together to build some kind of mechanism to respond to Chinese behavior in the region,” said J. Michael Cole, a senior executive based in Taipei. member of the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC

Under a long-standing policy, the United States provides political and military support to Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to defend it against Chinese attack.

Yet as the United States increases its military activities in the Indo-Pacific region, the Chinese response has been to increase its, said Yue Gang, retired Chinese military colonel and Beijing-based military commentator. .

“The Biden administration has strengthened military deterrence against China, not only by sending in numerous warships and warplanes, but also by introducing its allies,” he said. “One of the possibilities is that the continent hopes to send a signal that it will not be mistakenly seen as weak.”

Chinese flights into the Taiwanese defense buffer zone have forced Taiwan to muddle its own aircraft and anti-aircraft missile batteries, wearing down their readiness and reducing their capabilities, Yue said.

“Every time a fighter takes off, the life of the engine is reduced to some extent,” he said.

As well as keeping Taiwan on the lookout, the exits also help Chinese pilots maintain their advantage and could potentially give them an element of surprise “if the scenario is to eventually use hard power to resolve their unification claim on Taiwan, ”Graham said. .

“It’s unclear whether Exercise 39 or Exercise 57 is the one that isn’t an exercise,” he said.

For now, however, most agree that this is not the immediate goal.

“It’s more of a signaling war and a psychological warfare and a warning to the United States not to be so close to Taiwan,” Mastro said.

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Increase reported from Bangkok.

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