Fears Grow Over Provocative Chinese Drills Set To Encircle Taiwan
Chinese fighters crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait today as Chinese state media outlet claims missiles will fly over the island.
Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense says that China's People's Liberation Army sent 16 Russian-made Su-30 Flanker fighter jets along with 6 J-11s, a Chinese-made Flanker derivative, across the so-called "median line" that bisects the Taiwan Strait today. Another 5 J-16s, another Chinese Flanker-derived design, flew into the southwestern corner of the island's Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. These flights were part of the Chinese government's reaction to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's brief visit to Taiwan, which you can read more about in The War Zone's initial reporting here.
The sorties also come ahead of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) plans to launch what look set to be extremely provocative exercises around Taiwan. These drills, which Chinese media reports have suggested could include unprecedented and extremely worrying launches of missiles across the island, as well as a virtual blockade, are currently scheduled to begin on August 4 and wrap up on August 7.
It is unclear when exactly on August 3 the Chinese fighter jet sorties across the median line – which serves as a de facto boundary between Taiwan and the mainland – occurred and whether Pelosi was still in Taiwan at the time. She left the island earlier today and arrived, without incident, in South Korea, which is the next leg of her current tour of multiple countries in Asia. At the time of writing, it is almost August 4 in Taiwan.
Taiwanese authorities had previously denied reports that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had immediately sent Russian-made Su-35 Flanker-E fighters toward or across the median line in response to Pelosi's arrival, but said other Chinese aircraft had flown into the Strait. The Speaker touched down in the island's capital Taipei late on the night of August 2, local time, and then took part in numerous meetings and other activities throughout the day on August 3, before departing later that day.
The PLA sending aircraft into airspace covered by Taiwan's ADIZ, particularly the southwestern corner of this zone, has been nearly a daily occurrence for more than a year now. The Chinese sorites on August 3, as well as the day before, are not anywhere near the largest that have ever been seen in terms of total aircraft. However, prior to Pelosi's visit, the day-to-day sortie figures had typically been in the single digits, so the PLA has clearly stepped up this activity in the past two days or so.
In addition, Chinese military aircraft actually crossing the median line is a much more uncommon occurrence. The most recent instance of this that we know of, prior to the flights surrounding Pelosi's visit, involved an equally unusual flight by a single Z-10 attack helicopter.
However, median-line violations are certainly not unheard of and have occurred on multiple occasions in the past in direct response to visits by other U.S. government officials to Taiwan. For instance, Chinese J-10 and J-11 fighters flew over the line in August 2020 then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar touched down on the island. More J-10s and J-11s, as well as J-16s, performed similar sorties as part of a larger show of force when then-U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach traveled there the following month.
None of this is to say that the Chinese sorites on August 3 are not concerning. Though fears that PLA aircraft might try to prevent Pelosi's flight from landing on Taiwan proved to be unfounded, authorities in Beijing reacted to the visit with furor and are now poised to launch a series of extremely provocative live-fire exercises in six separate areas around the island.
Some of the exercise designated zones are not only within what would be considered Taiwanese territorial waters, but also its internal waters, where independent countries typically enjoy rights that are more in line with those applied to hard land. The regime in Beijing views Taiwan as a rogue province that is fully within its sovereign territory.
China's Global Times newspaper, which is affiliated with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported today, citing "military experts," that Chinese missiles could be fired over the island as part of these drills. Needless to say, if such launches occur, the potential for dangerous miscalculations on both sides, as well as the possibility of missiles simply crashing into the island by accident, would be high.
In addition, it's unclear if Taiwanese authorities would be willing to hold off taking defensive actions given the possibility, no matter how remote it might seem, that this could be a cover for launches against real targets. Global Times' report also said that the drills could involve practicing to blockade the island, as well as amphibious operations.
At the time of writing, there does not appear to be an official confirmation of these details from the PLA or other branches of the Chinese government. Global Times was also a key source of reports regarding the potential for extreme threats to the plane carrying Pelosi to Taiwan, which did not ultimately come to pass.
Still, the exercises could very well reflect, at least in part, the PLA's existing planning for a future invasion of Taiwan. These kinds of large-scale exercises are also exactly what one might expect to see occur repeatedly in the run-up to actual Chinese military intervention on the island, similar in many ways to what was observed before Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
"We are not eager for a fight, nor will we shy away from one," the Tawainese Ministry of National Defense posted on its official Twitter account along with a new promotional video today.
It remains to be seen what these ostensible exercises will actually entail, but there have already been reports of PLA Navy (PLAN) Type 055 destroyers, which is China's most modern and capable warship, heading into the region, as well as road-mobile ballistic missiles moving toward China's Taiwan Strait coastline. Other ground forces have reportedly been seen massing in coastal areas on the mainland, as well.
All told, the PLA fighter jets crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait today appear to just be the start of what is likely to be days at least of provocative Chinese military activities aimed squarely at Taiwan.
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