China's breach of Taiwan buffer zone seen raising risk of clash

TAIPEI • China is ratcheting up the risk of military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, as it seeks to deter Taipei from continuing to deepen ties with the US and other like-minded democracies.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft repeatedly breached the median line between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland last week, in the latest of a series of military exercises in the area.

The Chinese pilots signalled a willingness to continue the practice, telling Taiwanese personnel who tried to warn them away that "there is no median line", the Taipei-based China Times newspaper reported last Friday, citing unnamed military officials.

The report was widely circulated by Chinese state media, with the PLA's Eastern Theatre Command responding to one post by urging citizens to "discard any illusions and prepare to fight".

The PLA Air Force separately released a video last Saturday showing H-6 bombers making a simulated strike on a runway that looked similar to one at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, a key staging area for any US support for Taiwan.

"The risks of war are rising considerably, and redrawing the map over the median line in the Taiwan Strait is a very obvious step by Beijing to not only raise the pressure, but also justify use of force," said Mr Malcolm Davis, a former defence adviser to the government and now a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

"These aggressive probes are perhaps designed to provoke the Taiwanese air force to 'shoot first' and then Beijing has all the justification it needs."

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last week hosted US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach and a Japanese delegation in Taipei, in the latest show of international support for her government. The officials attended the funeral on Saturday of Taiwan's first democratically elected president, Mr Lee Teng-hui, whose policies towards Beijing were at the centre of the last big military showdown between China and the US in the strait in the late 1990s.

Beijing regards the island as part of its territory, and reserves the right to annex it by force, even though the two sides have been ruled separately for more than 70 years and have deep social and economic ties.

Ms Tsai, who views Taiwan as a sovereign nation, has courted greater military and economic support from Washington since her election in 2016.

The incursions across the median line, which the US established in 1954 to prevent a conflict, signal Chinese President Xi Jinping's displeasure with the Trump administration's overtures to Taiwan.

Nineteen Chinese warplanes, including fighter jets and bombers, crossed the centre line last Saturday, according to Taiwan's Defence Ministry.

Taiwan scrambled fighters and deployed an air-defence missile system, following similar action the day before. Chinese military aircraft have crossed the median line five times since March last year, after respecting the buffer zone for two decades.

The incursions across the median line, which the US established in 1954 to prevent a conflict, signal Chinese President Xi Jinping's displeasure with the Trump administration's overtures to Taiwan.

China's "scenario-based" military exercises in the Taiwan Strait were intended to promote the island's "security and sovereignty", Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, a Defence Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Beijing on Friday.

Col Ren blamed the United States and Taiwan for "frequently stirring up trouble".

Such military incursions can help planners learn about a target's defence capabilities, divert attention from an actual strike or put political pressure on a rival. For Mr Xi, they also serve to galvanise domestic public opinion around his leadership at a time of economic and geopolitical unease.

Research fellow Su Tzu-yun at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research in Taipei said the incursions were aimed at whipping up nationalistic fervour at home, adding: "Beijing manipulates nationalism. Especially in the face of internal contradictions, nationalism can shift the focus and pressure. There is a greater risk of escalation and a military confrontation occurring, but currently it doesn't benefit Beijing to do so."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2020, with the headline 'China's breach of Taiwan buffer zone seen raising risk of clash'. Print Edition | Subscribe