A senior Taiwan official revealed that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has significantly stepped up military exercises around Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president. The PLAAF has conducted 14 aerial exercises around Taiwan in 2017 alone, according to the official. This number has not been independently verified and is substantially higher than the number of similar exercises conducted by the PLAAF in 2015 and 2016 combined—which totaled eight—and than the number reported by the local media for 2017. While Beijing’s precise intent behind conducting these exercises is not clear, they demonstrate advances in PLAAF military training and ostensibly serve purposes that include not only military functions but also political and diplomatic ones.
The increased number of aerial exercises follows ongoing efforts by Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping to strengthen Chinese control over the airspace in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) maritime periphery, both in the East China Sea and South China Sea. In reference to the controversial move by Beijing to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in late 2013, former Pentagon official Mark Stokes wrote that, “The PLA has a history of using airpower as an instrument of coercive persuasion against Taiwan. The PLAAF began flights over the Taiwan Strait in 1996, and extended operations to the centerline in 1999.” Furthermore, he added that, “diminishing Taiwan’s air space would play into its strategic objectives and claims over disputed territories in the region.”.
The recent string of PLAAF exercises, which included a combination of reconnaissance planes, fighter jets, and bombers, followed a similar flight pattern that essentially traces the eastern perimeter of Taiwan’s ADIZ—which in its entirety covers an area of 487,000 square kilometers (188,000 square miles)—and overlaps with the PRC’s East China Sea ADIZ over some 23,000 square kilometers. In these exercises, Chinese aircrafts flew around Taiwan through the Bashi Channel in the south and the Miyako Strait in the northeast of the island. While the most recent exercises were not the first time that the PLAAF conducted long-range exercises around Taiwan’s ADIZ, taken in their totality, the substantial increase as well as frequency of exercises may be seen as a form of enhanced coercive diplomacy to compel a change in the status quo.
According to the official, the intent behind these exercises is to send a political message that these areas constitute its “internal waters” (內海). Indeed, the Chinese military views the conduct of military exercises over disputed territories as a demonstration of its sovereignty. While Taiwan is the primary target of this form of psychological warfare, it is not the only military facing an expanding and more active PLAAF that is challenging the status quo. Japan’s Ministry of Defense recently released its 2017 “Defense White Paper” that reportedly highlighted Tokyo’s growing concerns over the PLAAF activities in the Sea of Japan. In response to questions from the media about the white paper, PLAAF Commander Ma Xiaotian (馬曉天) asserted that “exercises on Chinese seas must be done” (中國海上訓練必要搞). In addition, Ma retorted that “the Sea of Japan is not Japan’s sea” (日本海不是日本的海) and that the PLAAF “cannot be solely contained on land and not go out” (不能光守在陸上不出去).
Indeed, according to the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-General Michael J. Hood:
[A]t times, sovereignty is expressed simply by being present. The ability to project presence is of particular importance in areas where sovereignty is disputed or contested … [a]nd where permanent presence is not possible, airpower has the agility to demonstrate presence at range, on short notice, and without incurring the costs associated with an enduring land- or sea-based activity.
As further evidence of this political intent, the Chinese Defense Ministry reportedly told Japan that it should “get used to” such military exercises. The increased PLAAF presence, and military in general, over disputed areas appear intended to normalize these military exercises and establish new norms of behaviors. The apparent objective would then be to challenge Japanese airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands while also squeezing Taiwan’s sovereign airspace. In a recent encounter, a Chinese military aircraft that reportedly entered Taiwan’s ADIZ in late July and was directed by Taiwan’s military traffic control to leavel; the Chinese pilot responded by stating that “we’re the same people” (自己人哪).
The intended psychological effect on Taiwan could be to weaken the confidence of the civilian population in the military’s ability to respond to these probes. Some people are more alarmed by this than others. According to retired vice admiral Kung Chia-cheng (龔家政), former head of the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology: “I feel that China is preparing for a partial, limited and non-nuclear war.”
It is worth noting that while the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been training beyond the 1st island chain since at least 2010, the air force has lagged behind. The increased aerial exercises are, therefore, consistent with stepped-up efforts by Xi Jinping to exert greater control over the PRC’s peripheral airspace, since its establishment of an ADIZ over the East China Sea.
In his 2013 report, Mark Stokes concluded that, “Establishment of an ADIZ over the South China Sea could present significant political challenges for Taiwan. Depending on its boundaries, a South China Sea ADIZ, in combination with the existing zone over the East China Sea, could have a coercive squeeze effect on Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, as well as the airspace of other US partners in the region.” As US Representative Ted Yoho observed: “If you look at what China is doing in the South China Sea … they’re boxing in Taiwan … they’re [China] definitely prepping for [conflict].”
The main point: The PLAAF has significantly stepped up military exercises around Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president. While Beijing’s precise intent behind conducting these exercises is not clear, they demonstrate advances in PLAAF military training and ostensibly serve purposes that include not only military functions but also political and diplomatic ones.