David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political military officer at the US Department of State.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) did not conduct any flights that circled around Taiwan prior to 2016. It had stayed to its side of the centerline of the Taiwan Strait before then. However, since 2016, China has conducted numerous flights that circumnavigate Taiwan, and is doing so on an increasingly regular and threatening basis. For these sorties, China often flies its H-6 bombers, which are a modern version of the old Soviet Cold War Tu-16 Badger aircraft. They can carry cruise missiles—which could be either armed with nuclear or conventional warheads. Media reports mention that they keep a distance from Taiwan, and do not cross within Taiwan’s territorial airspace—defined as 12 nautical miles from shore. However, it is puzzling that China would break from precedence in this new and assertive way. In addition, though Taiwan is actively working on mitigating the threat, but it should consider reciprocating such threatening flights as the best way to push China to de-escalate.
Chinese PLA military aircraft have conducted frequent flights near Taiwan since 2016, and this list includes flights that have circumnavigated Taiwan:
- October 27, 2016
- November 25, 2016
- December 10, 2016
- March 2, 2017
- July 13, 2017
- July 20, 2017
- July 24, 2017
- August 9, 2017
- August 12, 2017
- August 13, 2017
- August 14, 2017
- November 18, 2017
- November 23, 2017
- December 7, 2017
- December 11, 2017
China’s bombers and transport aircraft are circumnavigating Taiwan, but this has been occurring within a regional context. China’s previously mentioned H-6 bombers have recently been a common sight over South China Sea islands claimed by Philippines, Vietnam and Australia. Furthermore, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford mentioned that China’s nuclear capable bombers had been conducting flights near US mid-Pacific naval and air force facilities; and they have been observed practicing “attacks on Guam.” US officials warned that practice bomb runs by Chinese aircraft on US bases in the Pacific is “not in China’s interest.” As China’s military aircraft are adopting increasingly assertive flight paths, it’s important to note that it is happening in the context where Taiwan previously possessed air dominance throughout entire cross-Strait area two decades ago.
Taiwan’s prior air and sea dominance
Prior to 1996, the PLA Air Force refrained from flying any distance into the Taiwan Strait, but instead either stayed inland or close to shore. From 1958 to the 1990s, Taiwan’s fighter aircraft had free movement throughout the entire Strait up until 30 nautical miles from China’s coast, while PLA fighter aircraft stayed close to their own shoreline. According to a Taiwan Ministry of National Defense spokesperson, the PLAAF began to fly deeper into the Taiwan Strait following China’s 1996 military exercise that led to the cross-Strait missile crisis that year, but aircraft still not venture near the centerline. It was in 1998 that Chinese fighter aircraft started to fly near the centerline, with numbers for military flights quickly rising to around 1,200 sorties per year.
When Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui declared in July 9, 1999, that a special state-to-state relationship existed between Taiwan and China, PLAAF flights crossed the centerline for the first time. Now, two decades later, China is pushing the limits far beyond the centerline by flying sorties that encircle Taiwan, and with alarming regularity.
Even China’s commercial aircraft are flying closer to the centerline. Recently on January 4, 2018, China unilaterally re-opened M503 flight route that flows north along the centerline of the Strait. Earlier in 2015, Taiwan’s government stated that China’s commercial airliners that fly close to the centerline may be intercepted by Taiwan’s military. Tseng Dar-jen, Taiwan’s Deputy Minister for Home Affairs in the Ministry of Transportation and Communication at the time, said that China is well aware that the new airline routes will affect security in the border area between China and Taiwan, but unfortunately, he added that China often shows no respect for its neighbors and ignores steps like communicating and negotiating with other entities in matters that affect both sides. He also mentioned how such behavior does not conform to established international practice.
Possibility of de-escalation through reciprocity
In the current situation, there is little hope of China unilaterally de-escalating because while its assertiveness threatens others, there is little incentive for China to de-escalate. Complaining, protesting, and intercepting flights are not enough to change China’s behavior. To Taiwan’s credit, it does increase its sorties along with China’s increase, and Taiwan’s aircraft would occasionally venture over the centerline of the Strait in response to China’s movements. When China conducted a major air exercise in the Taiwan Strait in September 2004, mobilizing various fighter aircraft and bombers, Taiwan responded with a similar show of force involving a large number of Taiwan’s fighter aircraft. The reasoning is that two sides would more likely back away from a precipice when both sides face threats and costs from one another. They would agree that if one side stops threatening the other side, then the other side will stop too. Both would become more secure, and would therefore back down in this scenario.
Taiwan could gain leverage over China through such a tit-for-tat strategy of reciprocity. Robert Axelrod’s seminal Evolution of Cooperation mentions that tit-for-tat is a strategy based on reciprocity, which is to reciprocate another’s cooperation as well as defection. Defecting when others defect show that you will not be exploited. According to Axelrod, for cooperation to be stable, there must be a large shadow of the future—which is an expectation of consequences of failure to cooperate—so individuals would be aware that lack of cooperation is an unprofitable strategy. How it applies to the situation with China’s bomber flights is that Taiwan should display similar types of activity toward China so both sides realize that continued aggression and lack of cooperation is an unprofitable strategy.
If China circumnavigates Taiwan while keeping outside of Taiwan’s 12 nautical mile territorial seas and airspace, then Taiwan could partially circumnavigate a Chinese island too. To mirror China, Taiwan’s aircraft can even keep to its side of the centerline, but then cross over at exactly the same spot that Chinese aircraft crossed over last time if the island is located near China’s coast. These actions would turn around and apply China’s new and assertive actions back against China. Both sides could then determine that they are causing unnecessary risk and threat toward one another, giving reasons for both to back down. If only one side is threatening the other without itself being threatened, then there is little reason to back down.
Some of China’s islands are seemingly distant, but they are within reach of Taiwan’s F-16 fighter aircraft or C-130 aircraft without refueling. Taiwan’s military aircraft can reach locations roughly 1,000 km to 1,500 km away from Taiwan. Taiwan’s F-16 aircraft range is 3,200 km, which makes most of the West Pacific accessible for a round trip flight. Taiwan’s C-130 cargo aircraft could possibly be converted into bomber aircraft, and its range is 2,400 km. The key is to not require refueling, since Taiwan does not possess in-flight refueling tanker aircraft, and there is little hope that the United States or other regional partners would refuel Taiwan’s aircraft for such missions. These are ways for Taiwan to engage with China in exactly the same way that China is dealing with Taiwan through bomber flights, rather than Taiwan simply trying to minimize the threat that China’s bombers pose toward Taiwan.
Over the past two years, China has started to hold bomber flights that circle around Taiwan. This violates the past norm established in the 1990s where each side stays on its half of centerline that bisects the Taiwan Strait. Prior to the 1990s, Taiwan’s air force was superior to the PLA and Taiwan’s aircraft had free reign of the entire Taiwan Strait, up to China’s territorial waters at 12 nm away from land.
Today, Taiwan’s Air Force aircraft intercept Chinese PLA bombers in an effort to protect itself and lessen the threat. However, a more robust reciprocation through a de-escalatory tit-for-tat strategy could ultimately bring both China and Taiwan agree to make the situation safer for themselves by being less aggressive toward one another.
Main point: Taiwan historically dominated the entire Taiwan Strait, but China is now violating the centerline norm with its new and provocative bomber flights around Taiwan. To prevent accidents or misunderstandings, both sides should unilaterally revert back to keeping within their sides of the centerline; yet if China continues to disregard to centerline norm, then Taiwan should toughen reciprocal tit-for-tat measures to incentivize China to de-escalate.
¹Taiwan Ministry of Defense. 2017 National Defense Report. Taipei: Ministry of Defense, 2017. Page 38
²Zagoria, Donald. Breaking the China-Taiwan Impasse. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Page 177
Note: Although articles published by the Diplomat, CBS News, Australian news list China’s H-6 aircraft as capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the US Department of Defense notes that this may not be the case since only the PLA Rocket Force and PLA Navy have a nuclear mission, not the PLA Air Force (US Department of Defense, 2017 Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments involving the PRC, page 61).