On the morning of March 31, two People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-11 fighter aircraft crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait and entered the southwestern part of Taiwan’s airspace, causing a dangerous 10-minute standoff with the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) interceptors.
The intrusion, which Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) described as an “intentional, reckless, and provocative action,” was reportedly the first deliberate intrusion by PLAAF aircraft since 1999. The 1999 intrusion was ostensibly in response to then-president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) remarks about Taiwan and China being in a “special state-to-state relationship.” Despite repeated radio warnings from the ROCAF, the J-11s flew 43 nautical miles (79.6 km, or 49.9 mi.) into Taiwan’s side of the median line, according to government officials.
Although it is not an article of international law and not recognized by either side, the median line that separates the Taiwan Strait has contributed to stability and mitigated the risks of accidents since the mid-1950s. It was the brainchild of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Taipei-based commander of the 13th Air Force at the time.
In contrast with the 1999 incident and the one that occurred last month, the majority of PLAAF intrusions across the median line have been generally brief and were considered a result of miscalculation or bad weather, although it is difficult to completely rule out intentional infractions. In past incidents the Chinese aircraft immediately returned to the Chinese side of the line after being warned off by the ROCAF, or the PLAAF aircraft would fly toward the median line but would veer off at the last minute.
According to Chinese-language media reports, commercial air traffic tracking saw a complete reduction of flights along the M503 corridor (managed by the Shanghai Flight Information Zone) at the time of the incident, suggesting that Chinese authorities had instructed commercial operators to avoid the area as the PLAAF conducted its operation.
The United States, Japan, and the EU expressed concerns over the March 31 incident. The day before this last incident, the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) scrambled interceptors after four PLAAF Xian H-6K long-range bombers, one Shaanxi Y-8 electronic countermeasures aircraft, one Tupolev Tu-154 MD electronic intelligence plane, and at least two fighter aircraft entered Japan’s airspace along the Strait of Miyako, the Japanese defense ministry said in a statement.
Asked about the incident during a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., on April 3, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randy Schriver said that the United States is “concerned with anything that threatens the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait […] in particular we’re concerned about China’s use of military means for the purpose of intimidation and coercion.” “Clearly, crossing the center line for the first time since 2011—in that case it was thought to be perhaps by accident—this was very much planned, calculated and with the purpose of intimidating Taiwan,” he said. “We’re opposed to that and we would call upon China to take a much more constructive approach, including renouncing the use of force, reducing the military posture opposite Taiwan that threatens them and to engage in meaningful dialogue with the elected officials on Taiwan,” Schriver added.
The military provocation occurred amid strengthening ties between Taiwan and the United States as the two countries mark the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) on April 10th. US Navy vessels have conducted a number of transits in the international waters of the Taiwan Strait in the past year (on three occasions in 2019 alone) (according to Steven Stashwick, “Since neither China nor Taiwan
On the day following the incident, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece Global Times ran an article in which Chinese defense analysts observed that the intrusion was in response to Taiwan “independence forces” and the United States’ use of the “Taiwan card.” “If the US and the island of Taiwan upgrade their provocative actions, the mainland’s fly-through could become routine and the ‘middle line’ could become history,” the piece wrote, quoting a Chinese “military expert who asked not to be named.”
“Taiwan is not worth targeting anymore. All of our military strength [shown] is used to tell the US to stop where it should stop,” another unnamed Chinese military expert told the Global Times. “The island of Taiwan causes trouble because the US supports it. When the US calms down, it [Taiwan] will calm down.”
From an intelligence-gathering perspective, the intrusion also affords the PLA an opportunity to monitor the reaction by the Taiwanese military and to gather information on its air defense architecture, response time, and so on. Such intelligence would play an important role in case of an aerial assault against Taiwan.
The March 31 incident also took place 10 months before the general elections in Taiwan, which are expected to be hotly contested between President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), whose platform includes the recognition of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which Beijing has made a prerequisite for renewed talks across the Taiwan Strait, as well as a possible “peace agreement.” Besides President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) proclivity for unilateral actions which undermine long-standing agreements and practices—in this case shattering the “gentlemen’s agreement” on respecting the median line—the act was ostensibly meant to increase the psychological pressure on Taiwanese society, to reaffirm China’s might, bolster a sense of “historical inevitability,” and to convince Taiwanese voters to ditch the ruling party in the January 2020 elections. The strategy is a risky gambit, as history suggests that overtly aggressive behavior by Beijing, such as occurred during the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis in 1995-6, can backfire and compel Taiwanese to vote for the more Taiwan-centric candidate. If indeed deliberate, the intrusion suggests that Beijing has decided to ramp up its coercive strategy for the remainder of President Tsai’s first term in office rather than reduce tensions while emphasizing economic incentives and “goodwill.” (In fact, in Beijing’s playbook coercion and incentives are not mutually exclusive and are regarded as mutually reinforcing.)
The reckless behavior displayed by the PLAAF on March 31, to which President Tsai responded by stating that any future intrusion would prompt a “forceful expulsion,” also increases the risks of collision and miscommunication in an already tense environment. In the event of an accident (e.g., the shooting down of a Chinese aircraft, or a mid-air collision akin to that involving a US Navy EP-3 and Chinese J-8 on April 1, 2001, off Hainan), it is uncertain how the PLAAF chain of command, up to the Central Military Commission, would react. Given the strident nationalism that has been cultivated by the CCP as part of President Xi’s “great rejuvenation” efforts, added to the likelihood that reporting on such an incident would be distorted by Chinese disinformation, Beijing could conceivably take advantage of the contingency, real or manufactured, to escalate military efforts—in this case “punitive” and in “self-defense”—against Taiwan. Nationalistic pressures would also make it difficult for Beijing to de-escalate. Given that the median line in the Taiwan Strait is not recognized by international law and has been treated at most by both sides as customary law over the years, it would be difficult for Taipei to argue that it was acting within its legal rights under international conventions should it shoot down a PLAAF aircraft–unless the intrusion occurred within Taiwan’s actual airspace (not to be confused with its exclusive economic zone, above which foreign aircraft have, in theory, right to free passage), that is, within 12 nautical miles of its coastline.
The main point: The 10-minute standoff that occurred on March 31 was aimed at both the Tsai Ing-wen administration and the United States. The erosion of longstanding agreements and practices by Beijing is conducive to tension and increases the risks of accidents and miscommunication in an already tense cross-Strait environment.