The Chinese military engaged in multiple exercises near Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan this week, forcing all three nations to scramble jets while Beijing officials insisted the display of force was a “normal” event.
On Monday, China deployed “at least eight” warplanes to fly over the Korea Strait and through both Japan’s and South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ), in addition to flying over numerous islands claimed by both nations. The South China Morning Post notes that neither nation claims China violated their airspace, but Chinese Air Force fighter jets did enter the ADIZs of both nations and prompted both the South Korean military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to scramble fighter jets.
The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun describes the exercise as featuring “the largest Chinese squadron to ever fly over the Tsushima Strait, which separates South Korea from Nagasaki Prefecture.” Asahi does add that it appears that Chinese pilots had a conversation with their South Korean counterparts upon entering their ADIZ, identifying the reason for their presence there as “training.”
The South China Morning Post quotes both a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesman and a Chinese “expert” cited in Chinese state media as referring to the exercise as “routine” and “normal,” respectively. The People’s Daily, a Chinese government news outlet, dismissed Japanese concerns with the operation, citing “a Beijing-based air defense expert” who argued that Japan had “overreacted” to the exercises and “may have wanted to deliberately hype up the event and act as troublemakers.”
Japanese officials appear to disagree. “There was likely the aim of keeping cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea in check,” a high-ranking SDF officer told Asahi. A different unnamed officer speculated that the exercise could be “sending a message to (U.S. President-elect Donald) Trump, who is trying to deepen ties with Taiwan.” President-elect Trump has questioned the “One China” policy, which refuses to acknowledge Taiwanese sovereignty, in the past.
Chinese media appear to be downplaying the significance of their military presence in the region while overstating diplomatic tensions between South Korea and Japan. In a column protesting Japan’s alleged overreaction to the Chinese military operating in their ADIZ, China’s state-run Global Times dismissed South Korea as “just along for the ride.” “China treats cooperation with South Korea seriously, and would like to cooperate with South Korea based on the mutual respect of security interests,” the Times quotes the Chinese Foreign Ministry as saying.
Xinhua, a less opinion-oriented state outlet, warned of a “prolonged feud” between the two nations over the issue of Japan’s use of South Korean women as sex slaves during World War II.
In addition to alarming both Japan and South Korea, the Chinese military flew an H-6 strategic bomber over disputed territory in the South China Sea this weekend. Specifically, the aircraft flew over the Spratly Islands, which belong to Vietnam and the Philippines, but China has claimed as its own and has equipped with military and surveillance facilities.
Chinese military officials once again engaged in questionable operations on Wednesday, as a fleet of Chinese warships backed by the Liaoning, the nation’s only aircraft carrier, sailed through the strait separating China from Taiwan. Once again, the fleet did not violate Taiwan’s territorial integrity but did cross through its ADIZ.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin used the word “normal” yet again for these exercises. “The Taiwan Strait is an international waterway shared between the mainland and Taiwan,” he told reporters Wednesday. “So, it is normal for the Liaoning to go back and forth through the Taiwan Strait in the course of training, and it won’t have any impact on cross-Strait relations.”
The Taiwanese government, meanwhile, tried to play down their own concerns, with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chang Hsiao-yueh saying of the incident, “It’s not necessary to overly panic.”
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, is currently on a tour of Latin America to strengthen the island nation’s ties with some of its closest allies. On the way south, Tsai stopped in Texas and met with Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott.