Over the past year, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air patrols in and around the Taiwan Strait have become commonplace. Sorties have regularly entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and, on a few occasions, have crossed the median line—the tacitly agreed-upon air and maritime border between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Now, rather suddenly, these cross-Strait interactions have ceased to be primarily bilateral affairs. In recent weeks, American forces have been on the chessboard in a way that, at the very least, had not been previously acknowledged in the public sphere. With operations conducted by just four aircraft over a two-day period, the Biden administration has taken its first steps towards solidifying the American security commitment to Taiwan.
Reviewing Recent Events
On January 23, 13 Chinese aircraft—one anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, eight bombers, and four fighter jets—entered the southwest corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The following day, another 15 PLA aircraft—two ASW aircraft, one reconnaissance aircraft, and twelve fighter aircraft (Su-30s, J-16s, and J-10s)—again entered the southwestern quadrant of the ADIZ.
PLA air activities in Taiwan’s ADIZ, especially in its southwest, are now routine occurrences. While there have been incidences of larger excursions like those on January 23 and 24, the autumn and early winter were marked by near-daily incursions of just one or two patrol aircraft. As such, the size and makeup of the sorties on January 23 and 24 were of note. In a previous Global Taiwan Brief, I explained what China was up to with its frequent flights near Taiwan:
The recent spate of Chinese military activities near Taiwan clearly serves an expressly political purpose—to pressure the Tsai government, to intimidate the Taiwanese people, and to convey seriousness of purpose to third parties. But it is easy to overlook the PLA’s potentially more narrow ends. Put simply, there is good reason to believe that the PLA is seeking to better prepare itself for the day when Beijing orders military action against Taiwan.
Those rationales persist, but the January 23 and 24 activities may not have been solely—or even primarily—directed at Taiwan. As I told the Telegraph, from the sanctions on former Trump administration officials announced during the presidential inauguration to the ADIZ incursions days later, Beijing’s early signaling to the Biden administration was clearly focused on Taiwan. Xi Jinping (習近平) was saying, in effect, “We are not going to moderate our approach to Taiwan. The United States should do so instead, or Taiwan will be a constant thorn in the side of US-Taiwan relations.” The Biden administration appeared to correctly view those early moves as tests. Statements in response to both the sanctions and the PLA flights indicate bipartisan support for a resolute approach to China, continuing comfort with an at-times confrontational relationship, and strong support for allies and partners.
But it appears Chinese signaling was only part of the story. On January 23, the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel—separating Taiwan from Luzon in the Philippines—which American flattops do as a matter of course. On January 29, the Financial Times reported on US and allied intelligence indicating that Chinese “bombers and some of the fighter aircraft involved were conducting an exercise that used the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group” as a target. It is unclear whether this was new behavior or just newly acknowledged behavior.
After the simulated strikes on the US aircraft carrier, Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ on January 25, 26, 27, 28 (in the daytime and the evening), 29, and 30. After incursions consisting of four aircraft took place on three consecutive days (January 26-28), Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) reported that five PLA aircraft—a reconnaissance plane and four fighters—entered the southwest ADIZ on January 31. For the first time since MND began regularly issuing releases on PLA air activities, the ministry reported in the same announcement that a US reconnaissance airplane had likewise entered the southwest ADIZ. MND later reported a separate flight of two Chinese fighters in the ADIZ that night. Whether that second sortie was pre-planned or was a response to the US plane’s presence (or to MND’s publicizing its presence) is unclear.
The next day, February 1, MND reported the presence of one Chinese ASW aircraft and three US aircraft—two reconnaissance planes and a tanker. On both days, MND provided little identifying information about the American planes, contrasting with its approach to PLA aircraft. MND provided neither aircraft models, nor flight paths, nor photographs.
Whether US aircraft have previously flown through Taiwan’s ADIZ at or around the same time as their PLA counterparts is unclear. It is possible that this is a regular occurrence, but that the decision to publicize it was novel. Either way, it seems likely that both the US flights and MND’s public reporting of them were a result of prior US-Taiwan coordination.
Whether it is the flights that are new or the revelation thereof, the Biden administration is demonstrating a level of tolerance for risk in US-China relations that may have caught Beijing off-guard. The new administration is in its early days, but it is staking out a position in which allies come first, in which it does not mince words about Chinese atrocities, and in which American commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid,” as State Department Spokesperson Ned Price put it in a statement on PRC military pressure against Taiwan.
If US flights are new, it suggests that the Biden administration has determined that it needs to put more “skin in the game” in the Taiwan Strait. Occasional naval transits through the strait, which have continued under Biden, have perhaps been deemed insufficient for conveying a willingness to play an active role in deterring Chinese malfeasance. The PLA must now grapple with the fact that American aircraft will occasionally be present—observing, and perhaps willing to intervene. In my Global Taiwan Brief piece, I argued that “a new normal marked by a higher operational tempo may make tactical surprise easier for the PLA to achieve.” If US aircraft continue to occasionally show up in the vicinity when Chinese aircraft are operating near Taiwan, tactical surprise becomes harder to pull off and riskier to attempt.
Even if it is the case that these US flights are nothing new, divulging them would still be significant. First of all, publicizing them makes it more difficult for the United States to cease those operations without reputational blowback; it is a way of conveying to Beijing that the US commitment to Beijing is not a matter for negotiation. Nor is that message intended only for Beijing. American allies and partners—including Taiwan, of course—see an America willing to incur risk as it stands by an old friend and, importantly, following up its words (that “rock-solid” commitment) with action.
As of this writing, MND has reported six additional days (February 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) on which PLA flights took place, but has reported no further US aircraft operations in Taiwan’s ADIZ. With Chinese aircraft flying in the ADIZ nearly every day, the US military cannot and should not be expected to match the PLA’s tempo. Nor does it need to. Occasional American operations like those of two weeks ago should be sufficient for complicating both the PLA’s operational planning and Beijing’s calculus regarding potential hijinks near Taiwan; for further enmeshing the United States in cross-Strait dynamics in a way that will contribute to a more sustainable strategic stability; and, relatedly, for shoring up American credibility at a time when allies and partners doubt US will and commitment.
With his sanctioning of former Trump administration officials during Joe Biden’s swearing-in and his major air exercises near Taiwan just days later, Xi Jinping attempted to caution Washington about continuing to advance strong ties with Taipei. President Biden has countered with what amounts to a warning of his own: the United States stands by its friends and will not give Beijing a veto when it comes to pursuing long-standing American interests.
The main point: By sending US military aircraft to operate in Taiwan’s ADIZ when PLA aircraft are in the vicinity and by publicizing those operations, the Biden administration has taken its first steps towards solidifying the American security commitment to Taiwan.