China sent a record number of military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone on Monday, the fourth consecutive day of such air incursions by Beijing amid growing fears of further escalation.
Taiwan’s ministry of defence said it had detected at least 52 flights during daylight hours on Monday, including 36 fighter jets, 12 H-6 bombers, two transport aircraft and two surveillance aircraft.
It followed consecutive missions of a then-record 38 planes on Friday, China’s national day, 39 on Saturday, and 16 on Sunday. Monday’s incursions came hours after the US state department urged Beijing to “cease” its activity, which it labelled “provocative” and “destabilising”.
The warplanes recorded during the day on Monday brought the total number for October to 145, surpassing September’s 117, the previous highest monthly total recorded this year. The use of J-16 fighter jets also overtook reconnaissance planes as the most common aircraft in the People’s Liberation Army sorties, said the Washington DC-based defence analyst Gerald C Brown.
Brown said that while the timing of the weekend’s activity with China’s national day was not surprising, the size of the missions “caught people off guard”.
All 52 planes flew routes out into the south-west corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ and back, near the disputed Pratas Island in the South China Sea. In response, Taiwan’s defence ministry said it had tasked combat air patrol aircraft, issued radio warnings and deployed air defence missile systems to monitor the activity.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China it must retake, by force if necessary. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who has made “reuniting” China and Taiwan a core legacy issue for his presidency, PLA activity has markedly increased, with near-daily sorties in the last two years.
The sorties, like military drills, disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, are a greyzone activity: combat-adjacent tactics that deliberately do not meet the threshold for an act of war, but which serve to intimidate and exhaust another party.
The potential circumstances and timing is debated, but there is general consensus that the likelihood of Beijing making a move on Taiwan is higher than it has been for decades, and world governments are increasingly speaking out against China’s acts of aggression, or sending military assets to the region for “freedom of navigation” exercises.
As cross-strait tensions worsen and activity increases, analysts fear the greatest danger for military conflict is through a grey zone tactic-related incident escalating.
The timing of larger-than-usual bouts of activity by the PLA is frequently attributed to significant events, or as a response to acts by Taiwan or allied nations to which Beijing takes exception. Taiwan celebrates the Republic of China’s national day on Sunday, and there have been significant multilateral announcements in recent weeks, designed to counter China or support Taiwan.
“The PLA doest exactly go and roll out the specific details on why they’re doing things,” said Brown. “People focus a lot on the signalling side of things, and usually with the larger incursions there is a signalling component, but more often it’s about intelligence gathering, wearing down Taiwan’s airforce, and pilot training.”