Military Activity and Political Signaling in the Taiwan Strait in Early 2020

Image: A photo released by Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense on February 10, showing a Taiwan Air Force F-16 (foreground) escorting a PLA Air Force H-6 bomber (background). (Source: ROC Defense Ministry / AFP)

Introduction

On March 16, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force aircraft conducted a set of unusual nighttime sorties over the sea to the southwest of Taiwan. At least one KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEWC) aircraft and an undisclosed number of J-11 FLANKER-L jet fighters participated in the mission, and at one point crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which prompted a scramble by Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) F-16 fighters in response (Focus Taiwan, March 17; Taipei Times, March 18). Although the nature of the mission was unusual—this marked the first time that PLA aircraft flew in the vicinity of Taiwan at night—the incident was otherwise consistent with a pattern of increasingly provocative naval and military aviation operations conducted in the vicinity of Taiwan by PLA units in the first quarter of 2020.

This uptick in tactical military activity has been accompanied by more assertive rhetoric from People’s Republic of China (PRC) media outlets and spokespersons since the landslide reelection of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) on January 11 (China Brief, January 17). These military operations (see further discussion below) have also taken place as PRC officials and citizens have scrambled to cope with the social, economic, and political impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that first manifested in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December (Jamestown, ongoing). This suggests that senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials wish to project the message that the crisis has not inhibited the PLA’s capabilities to defeat Taiwan “separatism”—and may further wish to use such operations to assert an image of strength in the face of the internal crisis produced by the pandemic.

Background: PLA Aviation Operations Near Taiwan Prior to 2020

PLA Air Force (PLAAF) flights around Taiwan are not a new phenomenon, and PLAAF sorties to circumnavigate the island—frequently involving H-6K bomber aircraft flying through the Bashi Channel (巴士海峽, Bashi Haixia) south of Taiwan, with other aircraft acting in support or escort roles—have been conducted since November 2016. In certain periods, such as the summer of 2017, these sorties peaked significantly. [1] These flights serve a two-fold purpose: they provide training for aircrews in conducting longer-distance sorties in likely operating areas for a potential future conflict over Taiwan; and they also serve a propaganda role, with both real and notional “island encirclement” sorties promoted in state media as part of a psychological warfare campaign intended to intimidate residents of Taiwan. [2]

On March 31, 2019 two PLAAF J-11 fighters crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait (an unofficial boundary, but one traditionally observed by military aircraft from each side), the first such reported incident since 2011. This prompted a scramble by ROCAF fighters and a sharp response from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文), who vowed the “forceful expulsion” of PLA aircraft repeating this action in the future (SCMP, April 1, 2019).

The end of 2019 saw another significant development for naval aviation in the region, when the PLA Navy (PLAN)’s first indigenously-designed carrier SHANDONG (山东舰) (CV-17) was commissioned in mid-December 2019 at Sanya Naval Base on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan (Xinhua, December 17, 2019; Japan Times, December 18, 2019). On December 26, SHANDONG sailed through the Taiwan Strait in the course of conducting local-area training and sea trials (USNI, December 26, 2019). The transit was of limited importance in terms of demonstrating operational proficiency, but it was a symbolically powerful statement of the PRC’s growing naval strength and assertiveness towards Taiwan.

Image: Xi Jinping, in his role as Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission, reviews an honor guard as part of commissioning ceremonies for the PLA Navy aircraft carrier SHANDONG held at the Sanya Naval Base on Hainan Island, Dec. 17, 2019. (Source: Xinhua)

Significant U.S.-PRC Military Events Near Taiwan in Early 2020

The pace of military incidents involving both U.S. Navy / Air Force and PLAN / PLAAF platforms has picked up in the first three months of 2020 (see chart below). These events have also been accompanied by at least three significant political events:

  • Taiwan President Tsai’s reelection victory on January 11.
  • A visit in early February to the United States by Taiwan Vice President-elect Lai Ching-te (賴清德), who met with senior U.S. political figures and attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. (Taiwan News, February 4). Although Lai had not yet assumed office at the time, and therefore visited in an unofficial capacity, his visit still drew strident condemnations in PRC state press (Xinhua, February 6).
  • Passage of the “Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative” (“TAIPEI Act”), which was signed into U.S. law on March 26. The measure provides a symbolic statement of support for Taiwan, and “requires the Department of State to annually report to Congress on steps the State Department has taken to help strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships and partnerships around the world” (Congress.gov, March 26).

Noteworthy U.S. and PRC military actions in the vicinity of Taiwan in the first quarter of 2020 are provided in the chart below:

Selected Significant U.S. and PRC Military Events Near Taiwan, January – March 2020
Date Event Source(s)
Jan. 16 The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS SHILOH (CG-67) transited the Taiwan Strait. A U.S. Navy spokesman described it as a “routine Taiwan Strait transit” that demonstrated “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” PRC outlets condemned the action, with a government spokesman asserting that Taiwan is “the most important and sensitive issue for China-U.S. relations,” and that the United States should abide by the PRC’s “One-China Principle.” (USNI, Jan. 17)

(SCMP, Jan. 17)

(CGTN, Jan. 17)

Jan. 21 Multiple PLAAF Su-30 and Y-8 aircraft flew from airfields in southern China and passed through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan, before returning the same way. ROCAF fighter aircraft were scrambled in response. (VOA Chinese Service, Jan. 23)
Jan. 23 A formation of PLAAF aircraft, including a KJ-500 AEWC aircraft and an H-6 bomber, passed through the Bashi Channel en route to the western Pacific Ocean. In response to the incident, which took place just prior to the Lunar New Year holiday, the ROC Defense Ministry assured the Taiwan public that it monitored such flights and that “there is no holiday for national security.” (SCMP, Jan. 23) 

(VOA Chinese Service, Jan. 23)

Feb. 9-10 PLA naval and air forces conducted joint drills in waters to the south of Taiwan. PRC state media explicitly linked the drills to the U.S. visit of Taiwan Vice President-elect Lai, stating that “Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party has been increasingly colluding with the U.S. [in plans] to confront the Chinese mainland, planning Lai Ching-te’s US visit, [and] seeking ‘independence’.” State press further asserted that continuing PLA flights and naval drills proved that “mainland military capabilities were hindered not one jot by the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak,” and that the PLA was “determined and capable of crushing any ‘Taiwan secessionist’ activities, resolutely safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” (Global Times, Feb. 9)

(Global Times, Feb. 11)

 

Feb. 9 A formation of PLAAF J-11 fighters, a KJ-500 AEWC aircraft, and H-6 bombers carried out a long-distance training flight that crossed the centerline in the Taiwan Strait, prompting Taiwan to scramble F-16s in response. PLAAF aircraft circumnavigated Taiwan, flying through the Bashi Channel and into the western Pacific Ocean, before turning north and returning via the Miyako Strait to the northeast of Taiwan. (Focus Taiwan, Feb. 9)
Feb. 10 A mission containing an unspecified number of PLAAF aircraft, including H-6 bombers, briefly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait on their way to the western Pacific through the Bashi Channel. (SCMP, Feb. 14)
Feb. 12 A U.S. Air Force MC-130J Commando II aircraft flew north to south along the airspace over the Taiwan Strait, while two U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew along Taiwan’s east coast. (Stars & Stripes,  Feb. 16)
Feb. 15 The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS CHANCELLORSVILLE (CG-62) transited the Taiwan Strait. A U.S. Navy 7th Fleet spokesperson stated that “The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.” (USNI, Feb. 16)
Feb. 17 A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft operating over international waters 380 miles west of Guam was allegedly targeted by a lasing device from the PLAN LUYANG III (Type 052D)-class destroyer HOHHOT. Per a U.S. Pacific Fleet statement, the action was “unsafe and unprofessional,” and posed a threat of “harm to personnel or damage to equipment.” PRC state press later described the P-8A flight as one of a series of “provocative actions” by the United States, and claimed that the aircraft performed “dangerous maneuvers” that were “extremely inappropriate, unprofessional and unsafe.” (USNI, Feb. 27)

(China Daily, March 27)

Feb. 28 A PLAAF H-6 bomber transited through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan before circling back and returning to base. (Straits Times, Feb. 28)
Mar. 5-9 The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) conducted a port visit in Da Nang, Vietnam—only the second such visit by a U.S. carrier since the restoration of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations. (INDOPACOM  Mar. 12)
Mar. 16 A KJ-500 AEWC aircraft and an undisclosed number of J-11 FLANKER-L jet fighters conducted a nighttime training mission southwest of Taiwan. At one point the aircraft reportedly crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, prompting a scramble by ROCAF F-16 fighters. (Focus Taiwan,  Mar. 17)

(Taipei Times, Mar. 18)

Mar. 26 The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS MCCAMPBELL (DDG-85) transited the Taiwan Strait. A U.S. Navy 7th Fleet spokesperson reiterated the message that “the ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” and that “the U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.” A PRC spokesman called such actions “extremely dangerous,” and asserted that “U.S. moves have seriously interfered in China’s internal affairs, severely harmed peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and poisoned Sino-U.S. military ties.” (U.S. Pacific Fleet Facebook, Mar. 26)

(Asahi Shimbun,     Mar. 26)

(Taipei Times, Mar. 27)

Conclusion

PLA naval and aviation operations in the vicinity of Taiwan are an ongoing phenomenon, and may be expected to further increase commensurate to the PRC’s growing military power. These activities ebb and flow on a regular basis, and too much could be made of looking for broader significance at particular times. That said, such tactical activity does appear to have been on the rise in the first quarter of this year. Furthermore, it has been accompanied by increasingly strident rhetoric from the PRC, which is insisting on its claimed sovereignty over Taiwan in an ever-more assertive fashion—even as democratic political processes in Taiwan are leading the island away from the PRC’s orbit, and making the prospects for peaceful unification on Beijing’s terms more remote than ever.

These actions have also been paralleled by an increase in maritime presence and freedom of navigation operations conducted by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force in the vicinity of Taiwan and the South China Sea. In a proverbial case of the lady protesting too much, PRC state press has accused the U.S. government of conducting military provocations in order to distract from failings surrounding the ongoing viral pandemic: as stated by the nationalistic Global Times on March 22, “The current U.S. administration wants to shift attention from its failure in containing COVID-19 and the plummeting stock market, so it is increasing efforts to escalate tension… China hawks believe that such actions during the crucial period of the COVID-19 outbreak can shift Americans’ attention by inciting nationalist sentiment” (Global Times, March 22).

The combination of its own rising military capabilities, and the need to project an image of strength amid the domestic social and political crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, have led Beijing to ramp up provocative military measures aimed at sending a political message to both Taiwan and the United States. If domestic woes continue this year—as, for example, in a serious economic downturn—Beijing’s saber-rattling across the Taiwan Strait may be expected to continue further into 2020.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, feel free to reach out to him at: [email protected].

Notes

[1] Grossman, Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Ma, and Chase, China’s Long-Range Bomber Flights: Drivers and Implications (RAND Corp., 2018), pp. 20-25. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2500/RR2567/RAND_RR2567.pdf.

[2] For discussion of how PRC state media has promoted these flights for propaganda purposes, see: ibid., pp. 22-23. For an example of how notional PLAAF flights have also been used in propaganda directed at Taiwan, see: John Dotson, “Beijing Sends a Menacing Message in Its Lunar New Year Greeting to Taiwan,” China Brief, February 15, 2019. https://jamestown.org/program/beijing-sends-a-menacing-message-in-its-lunar-new-year-greeting-to-taiwan/.