The Taiwanese air force scrambled fighters on Friday as 18 Chinese warplanes swarmed across the midpoint of the Taiwan Strait, part of an aggressive Chinese military exercise meant to intimidate visiting U.S. Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach.
Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) reported it was the largest incursion of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s side of the strait:
“Sep. 18, two H-6 bombers, eight J-16 fighters, four J-10 fighters and four J-11 fighters crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait and entered Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ,” the defence ministry said in an English-language tweet.
“ROCAF scrambled fighters, and deployed air defence missile system to monitor the activities.” The ROCAF, Taiwan’s air force, has scrambled frequently in recent months in response to Chinese intrusions.
The ministry showed a map of the flight paths of Chinese jets crossing the Taiwan Strait mid-line, which combat aircraft from both sides normally avoid passing through.
RTHK quoted local media reports that Taiwanese fighters were scrambled 17 times in four hours, and at least some of the flights were armed.
“Previous flights probing Taiwan’s air defense zones have generally involved pairs of aircraft, not so many at once approaching from multiple directions. That suggested Friday’s flights were intended as an escalatory warning,” the New York Times wrote.
The Chinese Defense Ministry insisted the drills were a “reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Alarmingly, the Defense Ministry claimed an aggressive posture was warranted because of Taiwanese “collusion” with the United States, which seeks to “use Taiwan to control China.”
“Those who play with fire will get burnt,” Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang threatened.
One of the more troubling aspects of the incident is that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stated it no longer respects the longstanding tacit agreement that Chinese and Taiwanese forces should stay on their respective sides of the Taiwan Strait:
"There is no middle line of the Straits," #PLA pilots responded when flying across the so-called "middle line of the #Taiwan Straits" on Thursday as the island's military called them to turn around, Taiwan media reported on Fri. pic.twitter.com/UxDD42xWzK
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) September 18, 2020
China’s state-run Global Times openly described the PLA naval drills as a threat of violence against Taiwan:
The PLA operations have multiple dimensions that make secessionists on the island a turtle in a jar, and the PLA can turn the exercises into real action any time if Taiwan secessionists insist on their obduracy, Chinese mainland experts said on Friday.
The Global Times made it clear that Under Secretary Krach’s visit was the reason for the PLA’s belligerent maneuvers, quoting the usual batch of “Chinese experts” who said the drills proved the PLA’s “strong capability to mobilize for combat and a fast reaction when missions are called for.”
The swift organization of the drill after Krach’s arrival in Taiwan was touted as evidence of the PLA’s incredible reaction time, an implausible boast given that Krach’s visit was not a surprise and the event he attended, a memorial service for the late Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, was scheduled long in advance.
One of the “anonymous experts” who spoke to the Global Times said the drills proved the PLA is “well-prepared to deal with any situation in the Taiwan Straits, including mobilizing for a large-scale military operation on the island of Taiwan, in a very short period of time.”
Another Global Times editorial sneered at U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper for stating that it will take years for the PLA Navy to “match [American] capability on the high seas.”
The Chinese Communist paper argued that Esper might be right about the U.S. Navy’s current qualitative advantage, but America no longer has the muscle to fulfill its “hegemonic desires,” especially in regions like the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea where the PLA would be playing with a home-court advantage:
The US needs to change its calculation formula when it comes to security. The South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits cannot be treated by the US on par with the Caribbean Sea. If the US wants to subdue China in the latter’s offshore waters, Washington must know it will be costly. In the long run, it is an unbearable weight on the US.
The US military enjoys overall strength. However, the US is far from being almighty. When the country pursues goals way beyond its capabilities due to its greed, it will turn from being a real tiger to a paper tiger. If it wants to be hegemonic around Chinese waters, it will find it beyond its reach. It will be a domain where US strength does not match its ambitions.
China is still weaker than the US, but it is making down-to-earth efforts without engaging in military expansion. When China’s interests extend toward the outside world, they are all achieved by common interests and a win-win approach. China will not confront the US or any other country on the world stage. At the same time, China will concentrate its strength on safeguarding its core interests. In that case, China will be as strong as the US in terms of core issues.
Underneath the usual cant about “win-win cooperation” and absurd portrayals of the Chinese regime as a responsible and widely beloved citizen of the world, the Global Times is arguing that China has the political will and international influence to follow up on military aggression along its maritime borders.
China seeks to change the longstanding calculation that attacking Taiwan or seizing the entire South China Sea by force would be so costly, so universally condemned by the international community, that the effort would be unthinkable. Beyond merely annoying everyone by sending warplanes to the wrong side of the Taiwan Strait and obliging the Taiwanese military to respond, China’s belligerent response to Krach’s visit was a bold assertion that defending Taiwan might soon become more politically costly for Washington than invasion would be for Beijing.
In the near term, Beijing also wants to make the Taiwanese people think Washington would hesitate to defend them due to those escalating military and political costs. Lin Yu-fang, a former Taiwanese legislator from the opposition (and more China-friendly) Kuomintang party, told the New York Times the PLA’s provocative drills were “a protest and a warning to the United States and to Tsai,” referring to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.