By: Jens Kastner

In the latest of an increasing number of close calls, the Chinese pilot of a H-6K strategic bomber set off alarms on Taiwan’s air defense identification zone off the island’s southern coast on Dec. 7, buzzing a scrambled Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet and radioing the pilot to get lost.

The PLA Air Force has increased its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone in the second half of this year, with the Taiwanese military confirming five such forays in less than two months since the conclusion of China’s 19th Communist Party Congress in late October, where President Xi Jinping in his opening speech offered what was called by the Foreign Policy Research Institute an “exercise in chest thumping and minor sabre rattling over Taiwan.”

Prior to the Dec. 7 snub, intercepted by a Taiwanese amateur radio operator and published by Taiwan’s Apple Daily, mid-air encounters between the two sides had been relatively polite in tone, with the Chinese pilots often addressing the Taiwanese as “compatriots” despite serious political tensions.

The incident is regarded on the island as the latest indicator that the cross-strait military relation is entering a new and frightening era.

“PLA Air Force flights through the Miyako Strait and down the east side of Taiwan are serious war preparation exercises, and operations on the east side of Taiwan are required in order to impose an air and naval blockade that would precede an invasion,” said Rick Fisher, a cross-strait military expert at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, in an interview with Asia Sentinel.

“It is very necessary for Taiwan to continually challenge such PLA exercises to demonstrate resolve and to publicize China’s essential hostility to a free Taiwan,” he added.

It is not only the changing tone and the increased frequency of PLA drills that alarm the Taiwanese but also way these drills are conducted.

Signaling that things are turning much more serious, Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refueling planes were recently added to the formations, allowing the PLA’s Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to escort PLA bombers as far as to Hawaii.

Another noteworthy change is that the formations have now begun taking off from further away in the Chinese hinterland, making them more difficult to detect by Taiwan’s early warning systems.

The increased airborne threat is magnified by a growing seaborne one, as reflected by China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and its accompanying convoy in late 2016 for the first time completing a voyage circling Taiwan and continuing to operate frequently near the island.

According to Chen Ching-Chang, a Taiwan-born political scientist at Japan’s Ryukoku University, the PLA’s aircraft still cannot stay in eastern Taiwan’s air space for too long, and it remains risky for the aircraft carrier Liaoning to operate beyond the first-island chain. The PLA’s activities are as much about getting familiar with the area as about applying pressure on the administration of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which still refuses to accept the “One China” principle.

“The fact that these activities to surround Taiwan stopped during the 19th Party Congress and the APEC and East Asia Summit meetings, which overlapped with [US President] Trump’s trip to Asia, means that they were driven more by the political motive of teaching Taipei a lesson than by the need of regular training,” Chen said.

He added that Japan, whose Self-Defense Forces have from April 2016 to March 2017 themselves scrambled a whopping 851 times for intercepting PLA aircraft, “would not be quiet about that” if the Japanese government had not lately been preoccupied with North Korean nuclear weapons and missile development.

John F Copper, a US political scientist and Taiwan expert, for his part noted that Taiwan’s scrambling of F-16s amid the recent PLA activities looks like a weak response to most, with the media reporting that China’s purpose in sending the Liaoning around Taiwan was to warn the DPP about supporting independence. 

“It accentuates the fact that, contrary to what President Tsai and DPP leaders say, Taiwan will not decide its future,” Copper said. “The US will as only it prevents China from taking the island, which it could do easily according to recent studies and computer modelling.” 

Copper went on arguing that the recent PLA activities also create a less obvious dilemma for President Tsai and what he calls “the left-of-center DPP,” as they supported Hillary Clinton in the US presidential race in 2016 but are now finding themselves completely relying on President Donald Trump.

The pro-DPP media reports a lot of anti-Trump news and opinions, Copper said, suggesting that Trump is no doubt not pleased about this and is unhappy about Taiwan not living up to promises it has made to the US about spending 3 percent of its GDP on the island’s defenses.

“PLA activities are a lot more frightening in Taiwan in view of this situation,” Copper said.

Jens Kastner is a longtime Asia Sentinel contributor