October 7, 2021

Asia

CHINA/TAIWAN/US: PLA flyovers are about deterrence not invasion

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 5 mins)
  • China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) set three consecutive daily records for aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on 2-4 October.
  • The PLA incursions continue a long-term trend of increasing naval and air force activity near Taiwan but do not represent a discrete escalation, let alone impending military aggression.
  • Recent US-China military-to-military dialogues suggest that both sides want to mitigate the risk of an accidental incident that initiates a cycle of escalation.

Degrees of encroachment

An ADIZ is not equivalent to sovereign airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from a country’s coastline. The PLA sent 149 aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ on 1-4 October, but the PLA flights did not breach that barrier. An ADIZ is an additional buffer zone in which a country asserts the right to demand that aircraft identify themselves. China established its own ADIZ in the East China Sea in 2013, which Japan and the US do not recognize.

The recent PLA flights also did not cross the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait into two roughly equal halves. Beijing does not officially recognize the median line but has observed it in practice. For 20 years until 2019, the PLA never crossed the median line, but has done so sporadically since then, most recently in September 2020 when a senior US State Department Official held meetings in Taipei. During recent flights, PLA aircraft flew around – but not across – the median line, with some planes continuing to the southeastern portion of the ADIZ (see map here).

Taiwan’s ADIZ technically extends over a chunk of southeastern mainland China – a relic of Taipei’s sovereignty claim over mainland China – though the US does not recognize this portion, and Chinese flights over mainland China are not counted in the Taiwan defense ministry’s statistics on PLA flyovers cited above.

Beijing’s motives

There are several motivations for the recent PLA flyovers. First is Beijing’s desire to inflict punishment and deterrence in response to perceived Taiwanese provocations, including arms deals with the US, statements by Taiwanese leaders that verge towards claims of independence, and diplomatic gains by Taiwan in the international arena. The recent incursions may be a response to joint naval exercises in and around the Taiwan Strait on 1-2 October involving the US, UK, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

Second, a more robust PLA presence in Taiwan’s ADIZ can disrupt Taipei’s use of the area for surveillance of Chinese maritime activities in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Taiwan’s defense ministry believes that the PLA plans to gradually establish a permanent presence in the ADIZ and may seek to assert de facto administrative control over air and sea lanes. Finally, the PLA incursions serve a domestic political purpose in mainland China. The recent surge in activity occurred during the week-long “golden week” vacation associated with National Day on 1 October.

Taipei is appealing to Western countries to increase support for Taiwan’s security and diplomatic standing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen published an article in Foreign Affairs on 5 October (though commissioned before the recent flyovers) asserting that “Beijing is replacing its commitment to a peaceful resolution with an increasingly aggressive posture.” In a direct appeal to US President Joe Biden’s framing of US-China competition as an ideological contest, Tsai warned that the fall of Taiwan “would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.” The incursions promoted the US State Department to express “concern” about China’s “provocative military activity.”

Managing risk

The recent incursions do not change our judgment that mainland military action against Taiwan is highly unlikely, at least over the next 5-10 years. The motivations discussed above probably do not affect Beijing’s fundamental risk-reward calculus regarding a potential invasion or blockade. Indeed, Beijing likely recognizes that military aggression would serve to unite the US, Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia into the kind of tight anti-China coalition that Beijing’s current diplomatic maneuverings seek to forestall.

Amid increased military activities in the region by both China and the West, the greater risk is an accidental naval or air incident that initiates a cycle of escalation. However, both Washington and Beijing appear intent on managing this risk. The Pentagon and the PLA held defense policy coordination talks by video conference on 28-29 September, with the Pentagon readout describing the goal as “maintaining open lines of communication.” The talks marked the second round of high-level bilateral defense talks since US President Joe Biden took office. The earlier round in August focused on “preventing and managing crisis and risk.” Talks between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the Communist Party’s top foreign policy official in Zurich on 6 October addressed similar issues.

The recent spate of military-to-military contact follows a period in which such contacts had diminished, sparking increased concern about miscommunication. US National Security Council Coordinator for Indo- Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said in May that “hotlines that have been set up have just rung, kind of endlessly in empty rooms.” Beijing has resisted regular formal contacts between the two militaries in recent years because such contacts can be seen as legitimizing the US military’s presence in China’s backyard. But the two militaries reportedly maintained close midlevel communication during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August through the defense attache at the US embassy in Beijing.

Overall, the medium-to-long term outlook of persistent tensions and uneasy stalemate, due to the combination of increased military activity by both China and the West; a more assertive mainland foreign policy undergirded by nationalist public opinion; a more confident and technically advanced PLA; Taiwanese leadership that sees antagonizing Beijing as a winning political strategy; and military leaders’ careful avoidance of escalation.

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