China's People's Liberation Army flew 56 aircraft off the southwest coast Taiwanese on Monday. This set a new record, and caps four days of sustained pressure that involved 149 flights. They were all in international airspace. However, Taiwanese defense forces scrambled to respond and raised concerns that any mistake could lead to an unintended escalation.
As China's diplomatic and military power grows, so does China's naval presence. The United States has also increased its presence in Asia. Taiwan is pleading for greater international recognition and support.
China replied that the U.S. sold weapons to Taiwan and had its ships navigate the Taiwan Strait, while China called China's recent actions "destabilizing" and "risky".
The flights were simultaneously accompanied by naval maneuvers in Indo-Pacific. This was done with the support of its allies. It challenged Beijing's claims to critical waterways.
Taiwan's Defense Minister Chiu Kuocheng said Wednesday to legislators that the current situation is "the most severe in the forty years since I enlisted."
Although most people agree that war is unlikely, Taiwanese President TsaiIng-wen warned there are more at stake if Beijing continues to threaten the island with force.
In a passionate op-ed published in Foreign Affairs magazine Tuesday, she stated that Taiwan's fall would have devastating consequences for regional peace and democracy. It would be a signal that authoritarianism is winning the global battle of values.
China regularly flew military aircraft into Taiwan's “air defense identification zone,” international airspace Taiwan uses as a buffer for its defense strategy. However, previous flights only involved a few planes.
The group's composition, which included fighters, bombers, and early warning aircraft, was perhaps more important than the number of planes, according to Euan Graham, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Singapore).
He said, "That's the level sophistication -- it looks almost like a strike package. That's part the increase in pressure." This isn't a matter of a few fighters getting close to each other and then returning after placing one wing across the median. It is a more deliberate maneuver.
China's military strategy is based on Taiwan and its airspace. The area in which the latest sorties occurred also leads to the West Pacific and South China Seas.
Since Taiwanese government began publicly disclosing the numbers just over a year ago, the latest maneuvers have brought the total number to more than 815.
China is rapidly strengthening and improving its military. Recent flights show a higher level of technical proficiency and power, according to Chen-Yi Tu, a Taiwanese researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
This is a stark contrast to 20-30 years ago, when Chinese forces could not refuel in air or fly across water, stated Oriana Skylar Makstro, a fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a non-resident senior fellow at Washington's American Enterprise Institute.
She said that China was trying to remind Taiwan and the U.S. that it is not now, that they still have options. They can do what they want and they won't be discouraged.
Many democracies are also vocal in supporting Taiwan and have increased naval operations in the region.
China was on its latest flights when 17 ships from six navies, the U.S. (Britain, Japan, Canada, Japan, Netherlands and Canada), performed joint maneuvers off Okinawa, northeast Taiwan. This was to demonstrate their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
A few days before, HMS Richmond, a British frigate, transited through Taiwan Strait. China was angered by the announcement on Twitter, calling it a "meaningless display and intent to be present."
Graham stated that the international actions were an attempt to counter China’s claim that its actions are in response American moves and to demonstrate that democracies will defend established maritime norms and laws.
He said, "When the U.K. sends an aircraft through Taiwan Strait for its first time since 2008, and it sails down the median line," he explained. "The status quo must be maintained in order to have any meaning. The best way to do this is to show it with a government asset, such as a warship.
Australia, which has also voiced its opposition to China's recent flights last month, announced last month a deal with the U.S., Britain, and other countries to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This was seen as a clear statement that it wanted to play a larger role.
Japan, which has been cautious in its relations with China as a key trading partner, now views China as a security threat due to Beijing's assertiveness in the region and around Taiwan Strait. Fumio Kishida, the new Japanese Prime Minister, stated that dialogue with China was important. However Japan should also work with similar democracies to strengthen its security alliance with America and other partners.
J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., stated that "We are witnessing a slow emergence some kind of coalition of democracies within the region which are trying to come together in order to build some type of mechanism to respond Chinese behavior in the area."
The United States has a long-standing policy of providing political and military support to Taiwan. However, it does not promise to protect Taiwan from Chinese attacks.
Yet, the U.S. is increasing its military activities within the Indo-Pacific, and the Chinese have responded by increasing their own, according to Yue Gang, a former Chinese army colonel, and Beijing-based military commentator.
He stated that the Biden administration had been increasing military deterrence towards China by sending many warships and planes to war, as well as showcasing its allies. One possibility is that the mainland wants to signal that it won't be mistaken for weak.
Yue stated that the Chinese attacks on Taiwan's defense buffer zone have caused Taiwan to scramble its aircraft and anti-aircraft missile battery, reducing their readiness and decreasing their capabilities.
He stated that "every time a warplane lifts off, the engine life is reduced".
Graham stated that the sorties help Taiwan keep on edge and also give the Chinese pilots an edge. They could even help them surprise, "if the scenario is for them to use hard power to unify their claim over Taiwan."
He said, "It's difficult to tell if exercise 39 is an exercise or exercise 57 not."
However, for the moment, most people agree that this is not the right goal.
Mastro stated that it was more psychological warfare and signaling to the U.S. not to be too close to Taiwan.