Taiwan braces itself for more Chinese warplane fly-bys in 2022 after patrols double

A Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet flying next to a Chinese H-6 bomber (top) off the coast of Taiwan on Feb 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP/TAIWAN'S DEFENCE MINISTRY

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - Taiwan is bracing itself  for more Chinese military patrols in 2022, after  missions by China’s air force near the island  more than doubled this year, fuelling concern about a clash between the two sides.

Chinese warplanes have made some 950 forays into Taiwan's air-defence identification zone (Adiz) since January, according to Bloomberg-compiled data from the Ministry of National Defence in Taipei.

That compares with about 380 sorties the previous year, when the ministry began releasing the data amid a sharp rise in such flights.

Tensions could rise further in the coming year, with key events on the political calendars for both Beijing and Taipei.

Not only is Chinese President Xi Jinping heading towards a party congress in which he is expected to secure a precedent-busting third term in power, Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen is facing elections viewed as a bellwether for the next presidential race.

"China will send more military airplanes into Taiwan's Adiz next year with more intimidating operations," said Mr Kuo Yujen, director of Taiwan's Institute for National Policy Research. "The situation in 2022 is worth being concerned about as it's going to be a turning point."

The political events increase pressure on Mr Xi and Ms Tsai to show strength and the resolve to respond to perceived provocations.

United States President Joe Biden, who has affirmed the US' commitment to defend Taiwan from any Chinese attack, also has a political incentive to maintain a firm line towards Beijing before congressional mid-term elections.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified, by force, if necessary. Washington cut formal ties with Taipei more than four decades ago but has never taken a position on the island's sovereignty and continues to maintain arm sales and other informal ties.

Taiwan recorded the largest number of Chinese incursions in October, when both sides were holding national day celebrations and the US and its allies conducted a series of naval exercises in nearby waters. That included 56 flights in a single day on Oct 4, the biggest daily count on record.

Besides the increase in number, China has used the flights to demonstrate an expanding variety of hardware, including long-range bombers, electronic-warfare fighter jets, refuelling tankers and radar planes, and its ability to project power past Taiwan and near its outlying islands.

The patrols have also put added strain on Taiwan's air-defence systems and given the PLA intelligence about how Taipei would respond to an actual attack.

Still, China has over the past year avoided more provocative actions, such as crossing the unofficial median line that divides forces on either side of the Taiwan Strait or even flying over the island, as state media has threatened.

Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told lawmakers in October that the closer Chinese planes came to the island, "the stronger we will hit back".

The overall state of US-China relations could also determine how many sorties the PLA flies into Taiwan's air-defence zone.

Although the incursions have slowed since Mr Biden and Mr Xi agreed to hold their first video summit, the two sides continue to trade barbs over Washington's overtures to Taipei and Beijing's efforts to ramp up pressure on Ms Tsai's government.

"China's quasi-military means are part of its gray-zone tactic to intimidate and coerce Taiwan - it's a hybrid threat," said Mr Ou Si-fu, research fellow at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, citing other efforts including luring Taiwan's diplomatic allies away and economic coercion. "China's activities in the strait will increase as its competition with the US intensifies."

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