China Doubles Military Flights Around Taiwan

China Doubles Military Flights Around Taiwan

The number of incursions by Chinese warplanes into the skies around Taiwan almost doubled in 2022, more than quadrupling in just two years, according to an open-source database.

Chinese military aircraft, mostly fighter jets, were detected in the island’s air defense identification zone, east of the Taiwan Strait median line, on 1,737 occasions in 2022, up from 972 in the previous 12 months, statistics compiled by U.S.-based analysts Gerald Brown and Ben Lewis revealed.

Taiwan, like China, maintains an ADIZ beyond its territorial airspace. This acts as a buffer zone for incoming civilian and military aircraft, which are expected to self-identity on national security grounds. An ADIZ is considered international airspace.

The median line is an unofficial barrier that has kept cross-strait hostilities in check since the early years of the Cold War. American defense planners secured tacit agreement from both Taipei and Beijing to respect the boundary in the 1950s.

A Taiwanese F-16 fighter aircraft lands at Chiashan Air Force Base in Hualien, Taiwan on August 6, 2022. The number of incursions by Chinese warplanes into the skies around Taiwan almost doubled in 2022.
Annabelle Chih/Getty Images
China claims Taiwan as its own, although Taipei rejects Beijing’s sovereignty claims. Today, a much more powerful China no longer acknowledges the median line’s existence, and wants to push U.S. and allied militaries out of the region.

Taiwan’s defense ministry began tracking and publishing an uptick in Chinese sorties around the island in September 2020, shortly after the Trump administration dispatched the first U.S. Cabinet officials to visit the island in four decades. There were around 380 Chinese military flights that year, according to Taiwan’s estimates.

Brown and Lewis’ database showed an increase in sortie frequency, too, with Chinese aircraft operating in the airspace off Taiwan’s coastline on 268 days, up from 240 days in 2021.

In 2022, fast jets of China’s People’s Liberation Army led the frequent incursions into Taiwan’s defense zone with 1,197 sorties, more than double the 531 of the previous 12 months. Beijing’s nuclear-capable heavy bombers were also deployed 101 times, up from 60 in 2021, the numbers showed.

A serviceman stands on the wing of a partially covered People’s Liberation Army Air Force J-10C fighter aircraft a day before the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, China on September 27, 2021.
NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images
Previously rare median line crossings by Chinese air assets happened 564 times in 2022, all but one of which occurred after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taipei in August. The Taiwanese government reported no median line crossings in 2021.

China’s frequent incursions serve multiple purposes. Operationally, they give Chinese pilots an opportunity to familiarize themselves and their aircraft in a likely theater of war, while wearing down Taiwan’s own aging air defenses in the process. Politically, Beijing uses the activity to erode the morale of the Taiwanese armed forces and public, and dispatch large numbers of aircraft to signal displeasure with developments in U.S.-Taiwan relations.

On December 25, Chinese aircraft flew 47 sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ, an apparent response to President Joe Biden’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, a massive spending bill that includes unprecedented security assistance for Taipei.

For Taiwan’s leaders, there’s no easy response to what has been described as China’s “gray-zone” warfare—coercive activity short of war.

Beijing outspends Taipei on defense by about 13 times on paper. Taiwan is raising its military budget by 13.9 percent this year to $19 billion, or 2.4 percent of its GDP, but one-third of the fund will go toward personnel costs, and around 15 percent has been earmarked for logistics and maintenance of hardware and military facilities.

For China, which spent about $210 billion on defense in 2022, the political signaling it enjoys may also experience diminishing returns. The near-daily flights could have a numbing effect on the Taiwanese public’s consciousness, similar to the decades-long threat to take the island by force if Taipei doesn’t agree to a political union on Beijing’s terms.

Defense planners in Taipei and Washington, however, say Beijing has created a “new normal” around Taiwan with the activity, allowing it to frequent large areas of sea and airspace without reprisal.

Tan Kefei, China’s defense ministry spokesperson, told a monthly press briefing in December that the incursions aimed to “defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity against Taiwan independence separatist activities and interference by external forces,” a phrase reserved for America.

The U.S. has no official relations with Taiwan, nor does it have an obligation to come to its defense, but China is already planning for American and allied intervention, analysts say. Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan on at least four occasions.

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