Explaining Chinese Air Force Operations into Taiwan's ADIZ

China has conducted flights into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) for  292 days since September 2020. This is a cause of concern for not only Taiwan but for the United States (US) and their allies in the region. In October, Japan and Australia issued statements following 148 planes flying into Taiwan’s ADIZ in four days, with a record 56 planes on 4 October. Australia has warned China on the “use of force” against Taiwan, while Japan called on China to settle its dispute with Taiwan peacefully. China, for its part, sees its flights into the ADIZ as a way to show its sovereignty over the breakaway island, while Taiwan sees it as a breach of its sovereignty with respect to the current status quo. 

China, over time, has expanded its capabilities when it comes to these missions, from just daytime flights to both day and night flights to combined flights of different types of aircraft from different bases. Also, they employ a multitude of different aircraft from J-16, J-10, SU-30 multi-role fighters and JH-7 fighter bombers to nuclear-capable H-6 bombers and Y-8 based anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare and intelligence, and signals intelligence aircraft and KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft. Also, for the first time on 26 October, Chinese military helicopters entered the ADIZ, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence (MND). These missions show that China can mount large scale aerial operations day and night across Taiwan Strait, keeping up with the demand of operations and momentum of deployment if need be. 

It also gives China knowledge of how Taiwan’s military will react to these probings, giving them insight into the island’s defences. This would be valuable information if China were ever to attack Taiwan. It would allow China to capatlize on Taiwan’s weakness and overwhelm its defences before the US or any of its allies has a chance to come to Taiwan’s defence. China’s largest training base has replicas of Taiwan’s Presidential Building and downtown Taipei to train its troops in a familiar environment where they might be deployed in the future.

These missions show that China can mount large scale aerial operations day and night across Taiwan Strait, keeping up with the demand of operations and momentum of deployment if need be.

These flights put pressure on Taiwan and may even influence the Taiwanese public to force the government to find a way to end the near-constant violation of their sovereignty. The main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) states that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) pro-independence agenda is harming cross-strait relations. This narrative is further fuelled by China’s repeated violations of what Taiwan deems as its airspace and the other exercises it conducts near Taiwan and in the strait. China can also use these flights as a means of psychological warfare against the public of Taiwan by trying to show them that Taiwan will be unable to stop or counter China in case of an actual skirmish. As a result, the Taiwanese public would realise that the Peolpes Liberation Army is able to overpower their military, causing a huge blow to the national morale.

Another cause for internal pressure is the cost incurred to intercept and monitor these violations. In 2020 alone, Taiwan spent around $900 million scrambling the air force fighters to intercept these incursions, said Taiwan’s Defence Minister in the Parliament, also stating that the recent pressure was “great”. There are also calls in Taipei for the government to develop and deploy drones for the interception of  such Chinese flights as a measure of cost-saving and to reduce the burden on the military. 

China is also expanding and upgrading three airbases which are in close proximity to Taiwan, with the closest Longtian Airbase being 135 miles and the farthest Zhangzhou Airbase being 248 miles away from Taipei. These expansions could be followed by the deployment of a larger number of aircraft to these bases and the necessary support structure to keep these aircraft in the fight. These bases are also equipped with air defence sites to defend against any instance of attack from Taiwan or from ships sailing in the strait. China is also in the process of making a recently constructed massive heliport operational. This heliport is situated in Fujian Province’s Zhangpu County, some 150 miles from the island of Taiwan. These developments are perfectly aligned with the current increase in tensions between China and Taiwan,and this in the coming time, will make it easier for China to conduct operations into Taiwan’s ADIZ. 

If the reports of more frequent presence of US troops on the island are accurate, it may fulfil the stated policy, epically as China is ramping up the pressure on Taiwan. 

Taiwan has seen the deployment of a limited number of US special forces and their support personnel to the island for at least a year. Some call it an attempt to deter China from taking any military action, as it would not risk killing of American soldiers in an attempt to take over Taiwan. These troops are thought to conduct training with their Taiwanese counterparts in multiple domains.  It is thought to have been part of the previous administration’s Pacific strategy, which stated that the first island-chain nations, including Taiwan, must be defended from Chinese aggression. If the reports of more frequent presence of US troops on the island are accurate, it may fulfil the stated policy, epically as China is ramping up the pressure on Taiwan. 

China has also conducted flights in response to diplomats and delegations from the US and Europe visiting Taiwan. A flight took place on 7 October when 16 planes entered Taiwan’s ADIZ after an EU delegation left Taiwan. The delegation visited the island to increase EU-Taiwan relations. Then on 9 October, another six aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ, as some media outlets on the island published reports that members of both houses of the US’s Congress arrived in Taiwan onboard a military transport. All the while, China has been mindful not to conduct any flights into the northern portion of Taiwan’s ADIZ as it is in close proximity with Japan’s ADIZ. Any incursion into Japan’s ADIZ would lead to a reaction from Japan which would not be in China’s interest. 

China has repeatedly stated that Taiwan is a redline for it; as such, China would never let Taiwan gain formal independence. This is because China sees Taiwan as a break away province, to eventually be reunified. It broke away when the KMT led by Chiang Kai-shek and his government fled to the island in 1949 after defeat in the Civil War. Thus, China might settle for the current status quo being in place as it allows both parties to interpret the situation towards their own goals. The current administration of Taiwan under Tsai Ing-wen states that it is already independent as the Republic of China. China has also stated in the past that if the need ever arises, it will use force to stop Taiwan from becoming formally independent, but at the same time saying that they will respect the rights of the Taiwanese people and implement the one country two systems model which is used for Hong Kong’s governance. 

More recently, President Xi has said that the reunification will be undertaken via peaceful means, all the while China (PRC) carries out these incursions as a means of coercion or intimidation and to remind “Taiwan’s” policymakers that China is still the larger of the two Chinas.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Assistant at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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