Chinese fighter jet incursions a 'warning' to Taiwan

TAIPEI • Chinese fighter jets crowding Taiwan's radar screens are Beijing's latest tool to ramp up pressure on the democratic island, sparking fears that one mistake could suddenly turn a festering cold conflict into an all-out war.

Still, analysts say the threat posed by these incursions should not be exaggerated.

The air defence identification zone (Adiz) is not the same as Taiwan's territorial airspace. Instead it includes a larger area that overlaps with part of China's own air defence identification zone, and even covers some of the mainland. Nonetheless, it bears noting that until last year, China very rarely crossed into the south-western sector at all.

"These are part of what we call 'greyzone' tactics, it keeps psychological pressure on Taiwan," Mr Lee Hsi-min, a retired admiral who stepped down as head of Taiwan's armed forces in 2019, said.

Greyzone is a term used by military analysts to describe aggressive actions by a state that stop short of open warfare - what British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has described as "the limbo land between peace and war".

Taiwan has seen a surge in these kinds of Chinese threats since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, whom Beijing's leaders loathe because she views the island as sovereign.

Mr Lee cited greyzone measures from ramped-up cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns to a massive increase in Chinese dredgers taking sand from waters surrounding Kinmen and Matsu, two Taiwanese islands just a few kilometres from the mainland.

The Adiz incursions, he added, allowed China to "improve pilot training", including the occasional night-time sorties, as well as test Taiwan's own defences.

They also keep Taiwan's already ageing fleet of fighters under stress. There have been multiple fatal crashes blamed on mechanical failures.

China, which has vowed to one day seize Taiwan, says little about its Adiz incursions. But analysts say they send a message to three target groups: Taiwan's government and people, China's increasingly nationalist domestic audience, and Western powers.

This month's record incursions came after naval exercises in the Pacific attended by multiple navies, including two US and one British aircraft carrier and a Japanese helicopter destroyer.

It also came after Washington's recent deal to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia and confirmation that American special forces were training Taiwanese troops.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2021, with the headline 'Chinese fighter jet incursions a 'warning' to Taiwan'. Subscribe