Taiwan sounded the alarm over China conducting large-scale joint air and naval exercises inside its air defence buffer zone, a move Taipei denounced as a “severe provocation” and a threat to regional peace and stability.
At a rare press conference called on Thursday night, Taiwan’s defence ministry said almost two dozen Chinese military aircraft and seven naval ships had operated between 7am and noon on Wednesday and Thursday in an area between Pratas, a Taiwan-controlled atoll in the South China Sea, and Taiwan’s south-western coast.
The drill confirms concerns in Taipei that the People’s Liberation Army would ratchet up military pressure closer to Taiwan’s borders once the coronavirus crisis receded in China. A Taiwanese former senior military officer said the Chinese move was the most serious threat to Taiwan’s security since 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into waters just north and south of Taiwan.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack it if the country refuses to submit to Beijing’s control indefinitely.
Major General Young Ching Se, vice-minister in charge of intelligence at Taiwan’s defence ministry, said on Thursday he believed the PLA intended to create a new status quo under which it could regularly operate in the area off the south-west of Taiwan.
“Everyone knows about their intention to take Taiwan. So it is very obvious that they are using the pretext of an exercise to squeeze our operating space,” Maj Gen Young told reporters. “I believe they will continue such activities in the name of drills.”
The exercise area is in international airspace and international waters, but located on Taiwan’s side of the Taiwan Strait median line. The demarcation is an unofficial line of separation which the two parties had long respected to avoid incidents, but the PLA has crossed it several times over the past year. The exercise area is also in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, or ADIZ.
An ADIZ is an area that extends beyond a country’s territorial airspace and is meant to provide a buffer against hostile air incursions. When a foreign aircraft enters the zone without warning, the country scrambles fighters to identify it and chase it away if deemed a threat.
The Chinese incursion comes as the PLA and the US military have entered into open competition. Both have sharply stepped up patrols and exercises in Asia and the western Pacific, particularly around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Washington and Beijing frequently accuse each other of posing a risk to regional security. Although the US does not have an official alliance with Taiwan, it has a commitment to help the country defend itself.
Military experts said the latest Chinese air manoeuvres were part of a PLA effort to gather electronic signals intelligence. Such activity includes reconnaissance aircraft flying in a zigzag pattern to determine the exact location and operations of enemy radars.
Chang Ching, a research fellow at the Strategic Studies Society ROC and retired Taiwan military officer, said the US military and PLA had conducted such operations in the vicinity of Penghu, an archipelago off Taiwan’s south-western coast, for months.
However, Taiwan’s defence ministry said this week’s exercise was not a response to any US military activity.
Chang Che-ping, deputy defence minister, said on Thursday that the exercise was affecting international flight safety because it took place in an area traversed by international flight routes. It had also had a severe impact on Taiwan’s air defences and regional peace, he added.
“We urge you again, do not underestimate our determination to safeguard our homeland, and do not underestimate the Taiwanese people’s will to preserve their freedom and democracy,” he warned Beijing.
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