Taiwan Will "Forcibly Expel" Chinese Planes After Recent Taiwan Strait Boundary Violation
Taiwanese authorities are pushing back hard against Chinese threats, raising the risk of a new cross-strait crisis.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing Wen has said her country’s air force will conduct a “forceful expulsion” of any Chinese military aircraft that cross the so-called “Median Line” in the Taiwan Strait, which serves as de facto boundary between it and the People’s Republic of China. This comes a day after two Chinese J-11 fighter jets violated the line, prompting Taiwanese jets to scramble in response and eliciting a particularly condemnation from Taipei. This initial incident also followed reports that the United States was preparing to sell advanced F-16 Viper fighter jets to Taiwan, where Beijing has long said it draws a “red line,” and a significant increase in American naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait.
Tsai’s announcement first appeared in a post on her official Facebook page on April 1, 2019. The day before, the pair of Chinese J-11 fighter jets had crossed the median line and remained there for approximately 10 minutes, before returning to the other side. Chinese violations of the Median Line are not uncommon, but in the past, the aircraft have typically withdrawn quickly. Though Taiwan sent unspecified fighter jets out to meet the J-11s, it's unclear whether the two actually came within visual distance of each other.
This follows months of increasingly aggressive Chinese aerial activity around Taiwan, which is clearly meant to demonstrate the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in any future cross-strait skirmish. In May 2018, PLAAF fighter jets and H-6 bombers had notably flown a route that effectively encircled the island, showing its ability to attack from virtually any direction, something that had not necessarily been the case in the past.
Beijing “should stop behavior of this sort, which endangers regional peace, and not be an international troublemaker,” Huang Chung Yen, a spokesperson for the Taiwanese president, had said after the boundary line incursion on Mar. 31, 2019, according to Reuters. President Tsai had ordered the country’s military “to complete all tasks on war preparation,” he added.
It’s not entirely clear from Tsai’s statement exactly what measures the Taiwanese Air Force will take in the future to eject Chinese aircraft that cross the Median Line. It certainly means that its combat jets will intercept any incoming planes and demand that they leave immediately, but what amount of “force” Taiwan’s pilots might use to ensure compliance with those instructions remains to be seen.
The danger, especially with not knowing the exact extent of Taiwan’s new policy, is that miscommunication or miscalculation in a future incident might quickly lead to a larger cross-strait skirmish. Regardless, Tsai’s statement is a significant escalation in rhetoric and it's hard to see how it won't elicit a fiery response from the government in Beijing. So far, however, China’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry had declined to comment on the breach of the Median Line and the response from Tsai and other Taiwanese authorities.
Tsai’s new threat to respond more forcefully to future Median Line violations also reflects a recent spike in tensions between the two parties, as well as between China and the United States, the latter being Taiwan’s principle international ally. After establishing diplomatic ties with China in 1979, the U.S. government broke off technical relations with authorities in Taiwan, but continues to work with officials there through other channels. The United States also reserves the right to sell weapons and other military hardware, ostensibly to bolster the Taiwanese military’s ability to defend against a Chinese intervention.
However, in the past, the U.S. government has often shied away from selling Taiwan more advanced military systems that might draw particular ire from Beijing. The sale of new, or even upgraded, F-16 fighter jets to help improve the capability of the increasingly geriatric Taiwanese air force has been a particular saga, which you can read about more here. This attitude has undergone a noticeable change under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which has developed stronger ties with Tsai’s government.
In March 2019, reports emerged that U.S. President Donald Trump’s Administration was preparing to approve the sale of dozens of new Block 70 F-16s, one of the latest and most advanced configurations of the jet that Lockheed Martin offers. Taiwan’s acquisition of these more capable fighter jets has long been a “red line” for China and this reported deal may have been part of what prompted the PLAAF to send its J-11s across the Median Line, at least in part, in the first place.
The incursion also came just days after the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Legend-class cutter USCGC Bertholf sailed through the Taiwan Strait on a so-called Freedom of Navigation patrol, or FONOP. This was the sixth such patrol in nine months, which reflects a major uptick in FONOPs through this region under Trump.
There have also been reports that the Trump administration is considering sending an aircraft carrier through the Strait, which would only further heighten regional tensions. In January 2019, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a China Military Power report that concluded Beijing’s desire to eventually coerce Taiwan to reunify with the mainland was the “primary driver” of the country’s efforts to expand and modernize its military capabilities.
This same report also specifically cited then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s decision to send two carrier strike groups through the Taiwan Strait in 1996, a massive show of force in response to a major regional crisis at the time, as a key incident that kicked off Beijing’s efforts to rapidly increase the size and capabilities of its forces. The People’s Liberation Army has been notably focused on developing means to counter American aircraft carriers in any future crisis.
The present escalating war of words between China and Taiwan and China and the United States certainly points to a risk of another crisis similar to the one in 1996. In that instance, the inciting incident was the U.S. government’s decision to allow then-President Lee Teng Hui to speak at Cornell University, his alma mater, on “Taiwanese Democratization.”
Authorities Beijing had branded Lee as an independence-minded “traitor.” The current Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has similarly labeled Tsai an “independence extremist” and China’s premier has not shied away from threatening to use force to prevent the island from formally breaking away and declaring itself an independent country.
“The country is growing strong, the nation is rejuvenating and unification between the two sides of the strait is the great trend of history,” Xi said in a New Year’s address aimed square at Taiwan that he gave before a gathering in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan. 2, 2019. “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures.”
In 1996, China had responded to Lee’s talk in the United States with a series of snap military drills, including firing DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles near the Taiwanese-controlled Pengjia islet. This, in turn, led to the U.S. Navy show of force involving the two carriers.
It’s not clear how a similar series of altercations might go today, and whether sailing carrier groups into the region might be enough now to defuse the situation, especially given China’s increasingly assertive stance elsewhere. Just in January 2019, Chinese forces performed a missile drill involving its relatively new DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that seemed aimed at threatening the prospect of long-range strikes on American forces in the South China Sea. In October 2018, there had also been a very dangerous encounter between People’s Liberation Army Navy and U.S. Navy warships in that hotly contested region.
The video below shows Chinese personnel conducting a snap drill involving the DF-26 IRBM in January 2019.
China seems disinclined to back down with regards to Taiwan, either, at least in the near term. As DIA’s China Military Power report noted, the entire reason for the country’s military buildup and its increasingly aggressive military activities has been to challenge America’s ability to operate at all in areas, especially Taiwan, which Beijing sees as part of its own national territory.
Whether or not Taiwanese President Tsai is as much of an “extremist” as the Chinese government paints her as, her very public defiance of China’s authority is exactly the kind of thing Beijing would feel unable to allow to continue unchallenged. Beyond Taiwan, China has other potential breakaway provinces to worry about and fears that Taiwanese independence could have a cascading impact on its territorial integrity.
Chinese authorities may feel under the gun to act, as well, given that U.S. and Taiwanese officials have already publicly scheduled meetings in September 2019 to discuss additional ways to push back against China’s reunification efforts. Beijing has, not surprisingly, decried this move as destabilizing interference in its affairs. On top of all this, the United States and China remained locked in a protracted and bitter trade war that has itself escalated into a worrisome series of tit-for-tat arrests of prominent business leaders and other individuals.
Regardless, Taiwan’s government has taken a very hard line and has drawn its own immediate red line over any further incursions across the Median Line in the Taiwan Strait. This is a stance China will almost certainly challenge in the near future and that risks further pushing to two sides towards a new cross-strait crisis, one that could also draw in the United States.
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