Chinese Balloons over Taiwan: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

Chinese Balloons over Taiwan: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

XiJinping Masthead
Chinese Balloons over Taiwan: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

On December 7, 2023, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) of the Republic of China (Taiwan) released its regular daily report on Chinese military activity inside Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a standard practice that the MND adopted in September 2020. The reports typically document flight paths of Chinese military aircraft flying in the southwestern ADIZ and across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. However, that day’s report included something unusual: a balloon flying over the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

Through the end of December, another six balloons crossed the median line and flew toward Taiwan before “disappearing” near the west coast of the island. The MND stated that the balloons were meteorological in nature. While the inclusion of these balloons in the daily ADIZ reports was a step in the right direction, there was no context provided about how novel these activities really were and what sparked the decision to include the balloon in the December 7 report.

The balloon flights were met with both interest and confusion, but that quickly changed to concern when a balloon flew over Taiwan on January 1, 2024. While the report caused concern throughout Taiwan, it was reported after the fact, so it did not cause as much domestic outrage as what occurred in early 2023 in the United States when a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted over Montana and eventually shot down off of the Carolina coast. Despite US government confirmation that the balloon did in fact gather intelligence and transmit it back to China, official in Taipei continue to insist that the reported Chinese balloons were still meteorological.

In the 12 days before the January 13 presidential elections, another 12 Chinese balloons violated the island’s territorial airspace, with many flying over key military installations. China’s use of coercive military activity to signal its displeasure with geopolitical developments involving Taiwan has become a well-documented behavior since the MND began releasing reports on Chinese military aircraft, but none of the 4,800+ sorties included a publicly confirmed violation of Taiwan’s airspace. Even the almost 200 incursions by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) did not breach Taiwan’s airspace or fly over the island. Before the balloon incidents, the most controversial element of PRC military coercion in the air was Chinese military aircraft crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait. Of the 1,300+ median line crossings, none of them entered Taiwan’s airspace, so these balloons can be considered a form of escalation in this regard.

The MND’s official policy is that any military aircraft that enters Taiwan’s territorial airspace will be considered a “first strike” and shot down. This policy developed in the aftermath of an influx of UAVs flying over the island of Kinmen in August 2022 after a visit to Taipei by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After the now-infamous Chinese spy balloon that flew over the continental United States was shot down in February 2023, the MND stated outright that it reserves the right to shoot down any balloon deemed a threat to Taiwan’s security.

That same month, an MND official stated that Chinese balloons were being tracked around Taiwan “very frequently” and the wreckage of one such balloon was found on Tungyin Island in the Matsu archipelago. While the focus on balloons peaked in early 2023, the MND confirmed PRC balloons flew over the island of Taiwan, specifically over the cities of Keelung, Taoyuan, and Hsinchu, one year prior in February 2022. In both 2022 and 2023, the MND made the same conclusions: the balloons posed no direct security threat.

With these statements and policies in mind, there are several questions the MND should answer to increase clarity about these activities. How frequently were balloons flying through the ADIZ and over Taiwan before December 7, 2023? How many times did PRC balloons violate Taiwan’s airspace before January 1? Why did the MND choose to begin including balloons in its daily reports as late as December 2023—one month before Taiwan’s elections? What policy changes did the MND implement to make these determinations? The MND is very specific about what information it chooses to share, and when, as they relate to specific changes to the cross-Strait status quo. If balloons were regularly tracked, the MND should share this information to provide stronger context about their novelty.

The lack of context and information on the balloons caused many to rightfully assess the first airspace violation as a significant escalation of coercive activity by Beijing, especially as the balloon that the United States shot down had the ability to conduct “signals intelligence collection operations.” The MND should set the record straight by providing information about previous balloon violations. How does the MND know what kind of balloons these are? Since Taiwan’s military has not confirmed that it has shot down any balloons, are we to assume that they are all meteorological? Given the proximity of balloon overflights to major military installations, the MND should provide a justification for its assessment to verify claims that China is conducting aggressive surveillance of Taiwan’s defenses, without any reciprocal response from Taipei.

When balloons “disappear” above Taiwan, where do they go? Six of the balloons that violated Taiwan’s airspace supposedly vanished above the island, with many more disappearing immediately off Taiwan’s coast. MND should explain where these balloons went and articulate their policy for tracking them and not shooting them down.

Since the election, another 13 balloons have violated Taiwan’s airspace, with five of those flying over the island, and another 36 have been tracked in the ADIZ. The concentration of airspace violations at the start of January implies that the sudden spike in balloon overflights was directly related to Taiwan’s elections, but the MND should provide an assessment of their purpose.

Until these questions are answered, our understanding of the novelty, scope, and impact of these balloon flights will remain limited. As it is likely that balloons will continue to fly over and around Taiwan, the MND should take action to increase the public’s understanding of these activities—and explain why the “first strike” policy has not been conducted.

With a global focus on the security situation in the Taiwan Strait, the MND should take every possible step to maximize the transparency of its information sharing to counter Beijing’s efforts to undermine the status quo and normalize its coercive behaviors.

Editor’s Note: The figures for balloon flights in this article were current as of February 19, 2024. 

The main point: The December 2023 confirmation that a Chinese balloon flew into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone has sparked more questions than answers regarding the frequency and capabilities of the balloons, as well as the Ministry of National Defense’s policy on shooting them down after they enter Taiwan’s airspace and fly over Taiwanese land.