Tensions flare as Chinese flights near Taiwan intensify

With record numbers of military flights near Taiwan over the last week, China has been showing a new intensity and military sophistication as it steps up its harassment of the island it claims as its own and asserts its territorial ambitions in the region.

China flew 56 planes in international airspace off the southwest coast of Taiwan on Monday

Chinese Air Force personnel march past a J10C fighter and JH-7A2 fighter-bomber during 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, on Sept. 29 in Zhuhai in southern China's Guangdong province. China has stepped up its military flights near Taiwan recently. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

With record numbers of military flights near Taiwan over the last week, China has been showing a new intensity and military sophistication as it steps up its harassment of the island it claims as its own and asserts its territorial ambitions in the region.

China's People's Liberation Army flew 56 planes in international airspace off the southwest coast of Taiwan on Monday, setting a new record and capping four days of sustained pressure involving 149 flights. All were in international airspace, but prompted Taiwanese defence forces to scramble in response and raised fears that any misstep could provoke an unintended escalation.

The sorties came as China, with growing diplomatic and military power, faces greater pushback from countries in the region and an increasing naval presence from the United States and other Western democracies in Asia as Taiwan pleads for more global support and recognition.

The U.S. called China's latest actions "risky" and "destabilizing," while China responded that the U.S. selling weapons to Taiwan and its ships navigating the Taiwan Strait were provocative.

Biden, Xi agree to virtual meeting

At the same time as the flights, the U.S. stepped up naval manoeuvres in the Indo-Pacific with its allies, challenging Beijing's territorial claims in critical waterways.

With tensions rising between the global powers, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese Leader Xi Jinping are expected to hold a virtual meeting before the year's end, a senior Biden administration official said Wednesday.

The agreement in principle for the talks was disclosed after White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi met for six hours in Zurich. The U.S. official was not authorized to comment publicly on the talks between Sullivan and Yang and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Zurich meeting came on the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the country's concern with China's military activity near Taiwan, adding that the moves had the potential to undermine regional peace and stability.

"We strongly urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure and coercion directed at Taiwan," Blinken said in a news conference in Paris, adding that Washington's commitment to Taiwan was "rock solid."

Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told legislators Wednesday that the situation "is the most severe in the 40 years since I've enlisted."

While most agree that war is not imminent, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen warned that more is at stake if Beijing makes good on past threats to seize the island by force if necessary.

"If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system," she wrote in an impassioned op-ed in Foreign Affairs magazine published Tuesday. "It would signal that in today's global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy."

Taiwanese honour guards perform during a national day rehearsal in Taipei, Taiwan, on Tuesday. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

China regularly flies military aircraft into Taiwan's "air defence identification zone," international airspace that Taiwan counts as a buffer in its defence strategy, although previous flights have usually involved a handful of planes at most.

'Looks like a strike package'

Perhaps more significant than the number of planes was the constitution of the group, with fighters, bombers and airborne early warning aircraft, said Euan Graham, a defence analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

"That's the level of sophistication — it looks like a strike package, and that's part of the step up in pressure," he said. "This is not a couple of fighters coming close and then going straight back after putting one wing across the median; this is a much more purposeful manoeuvre."

Controlling Taiwan and its airspace is key to China's military strategy, with the area where the most recent sorties took place also leading to the west Pacific and the South China Sea.

The latest manoeuvres bring the total number of flights to more than 815 as of Monday since the Taiwanese government started publicly releasing the numbers a little more than a year ago.

China has been rapidly improving and strengthening its military, and the most recent flights demonstrate a greater level of technical expertise and power, said Chen-Yi Tu, a researcher at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research in Taiwan.

It's a marked contrast from 20, 30 years ago, when Chinese forces couldn't refuel in the air, or fly across the water, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Increasingly vocal

"I think China is trying to remind the U.S. and Taiwan that this is not then, that they have options," she said. "They can do what they want, that they won't be deterred."

At the same time, many democracies have been increasingly vocal in their support of Taiwan and have stepped up naval operations in the area.

As China was conducting its most recent flights, 17 ships from six navies — the U.S., Britain, Japan, Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand — including three aircraft carriers and a Japanese helicopter carrier — carried out joint manoeuvres off the Japanese island of Okinawa, northeast of Taiwan, meant to show their commitment to a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

A few days earlier, the British frigate HMS Richmond transited through the Taiwan Strait, announcing its presence on Twitter and angering China, which condemned the move as a "meaningless display of presence with an insidious intention."

The international actions are an attempt to counter China's frequent claim that its own actions are in response to American moves, and demonstrate that democracies intend to defend established maritime laws and norms, Graham said.

With files from Reuters

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