From the headlines of several news agencies, you’d think China was on the verge of war with Taiwan. U.S. News: “Brazen China Steadily Ramps Up Warplane Flights in Taiwan’s Airspace.” Yahoo News: “China Flies 52 Military Planes Into Taiwanese Airspace in Largest Incursion Ever.” NPR (during a similar spate of flights this summer): “China Sends a Record 28 Military Planes Into Airspace Controlled by Taiwan.”
If China really had done this, it would constitute a gross violation of international law and, possibly, the fanning of war flames.
But in fact, all of the reports are false.
What the Chinese planes crossed was Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, and the distinction is not a mere technicality; it is enormous, and all the parties—U.S., Chinese, and Taiwanese military officials—know it, whatever scare tactics they might be tossing up to a frazzled public.
Some papers were more careful with their prose. The New York Times, for instance, noted that China “probed the airspace near Taiwan” (italics added), but even its reporters declared the probe as “increasingly unabashed signaling that [China] wants to absorb the self-ruled island and will not rule out military means to do so.” Maybe so, but “unabashed signaling” and “will not rule out” (as opposed to “perhaps signaling” and “might not rule out”)?
“Airspace” is a concept of international law, referring to a line 12 nautical miles (about 13.8 statutory miles) beyond a nation’s border. An ADIZ is an area—usually much farther out from the borders—within which a nation declares it has the authority to identify, track, and control foreign aircraft approaching its territory. Roughly 20 nations have established an ADIZ, and they define its scope differently. The U.S. zone extends 200 miles beyond its borders. Taiwan’s covers all of the Taiwan Strait, part of the East China Sea, and a section of mainland China’s Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. No one would claim that the sky above those provinces is “Taiwanese airspace.”
Furthermore, the Chinese airplanes crossing into Taiwan’s ADIZ did not approach Taiwanese territory. Rather, they crossed into the southwestern section of the zone—away from Taiwan itself. M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s military and the director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, said in a phone conversation Tuesday, “These planes are never on a vector to intrude into Taiwan’s airspace.”
All this said, one point of an ADIZ is to enhance a nation’s defenses—to give its leaders a bit more time to warn a foreign aircraft that it’s about to enter that airspace. And China’s flights within the ADIZ are unprecedented in scope and nature. It flew 38 planes over the zone on Friday, 39 planes on Saturday, and 56 planes on Sunday—in each case, a lot more planes than China’s flown in that zone before. Whenever some of these planes include combat planes, the Taiwanese air force sends up its own jet fighters to warn them away. In most previous cases, the Chinese have sent mainly reconnaissance planes. This week, though, the vast majority of the planes were jet fighters, bombers, and anti-submarine aircrafts. In short, China’s behavior seems more strenuous and aggressive.
But what’s happening is more complicated than that. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a private research firm, said in an email on Tuesday, “It is worth mentioning that the [Chinese air force] maneuvers are not simply random bullying.” He pointed to an article in Monday’s issue of Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military’s independent newspaper, that reported:
Three aircraft carriers—two American and one British—were among an armada of 17 warships from six countries that trained together over the weekend in the Philippine Sea. … The training, which included air defense, anti-submarine warfare, tactical maneuvers and communication drills, continued through Sunday.
The armada was “training” for a possible war in the Pacific against China. So the Chinese maneuvers might have been a response to the vast concentration of American and allied military powers. And possibly to U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent announcement to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Or possibly to Taiwan’s application to join a Pacific trade pact. Then again, all of those steps were galvanized by China’s growing ambition—and sometimes aggression—in the region, which in turn was prompted by … and the thread of fears, resentments, moves, and countermoves unspools deep into History. That, of course, is the problem with these spirals of escalation: Each ratcheting up strikes the instigator as reasonable and the object as a grave threat. Wars have started that way.
Another clue to Chinese motives may lie in the date when its flights began—Friday, Oct. 1, China National Day, which is often invoked as a rallying cry for the unification of China, meaning the incorporation of Taiwan under the mainland’s Communist government.
The myriad strands of U.S.-China military tensions all wend back to the status of Taiwan, the tiny democratic republic 100 miles off China’s eastern coast. Washington has long had an ambiguous relationship with Taiwan (which calls itself the Republic of China). The U.S. government recognizes the mainland (the People’s Republic of China) as the “one China,” but it also provides arms to Taiwan and suggests—but doesn’t guarantee through any treaty—that U.S. armed forces would come to the island-nation’s defense if Beijing attacked.
It may be no coincidence that China stepped up its military flights over Taiwan’s ADIZ in early 2020, when then-President Donald Trump veered away from the “one China” policy, sending a high-level delegation, including an undersecretary of state, to Taiwan as well as boosting arms deliveries. Biden has stepped away from Trump’s unambiguous embrace of Taiwan, but not as thoroughly as Beijing would like.
MIT’s Fravel estimates that, since that trip, Chinese planes have flown over Taiwan’s zone around 20 days each month. They have also flown over Japan’s ADIZ with some regularity. In this sense, as in many others, Beijing is an equal-opportunity exploiter of rivals’ openings.
However, Fravel emphasizes, these planes have never flown over Taiwan’s actual airspace. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his generals may be haughty, but they don’t appear to be reckless.
The flights should also be viewed in the context of China’s broader military strategy, which most analysts see as a strategy of “area denial.” This means keeping adversaries—chiefly U.S. air and naval forces—as far away from China as possible. One way the Chinese military has done this is expanding the number and range of missiles and other devices (including cybertechnologies) that can attack U.S. warships and combat planes within firing range of its borders. Another way is building artificial islands out in the South China Sea, turning them into military bases, and claiming sovereign rights over the new lands so that they are no longer part of international waters. The United States has challenged this claim, sending warships on patrol nearby and insisting that these areas are open to international commerce and navigation. If war ever breaks out between the U.S. and China, it might begin with one of these challenges, or a Chinese counterchallenge.
This leads back to the main question on the table: Are the Chinese flying over Taiwan’s ADIZ as a demonstration of their offensive military might—or as a defensive move, a warning that the United States should keep away from Chinese shores? Ultimately, though, is there a difference? As the old saw has it, the only defensive weapon is a foxhole. China might want to keep the U.S. away from its shores in order to invade—or, more likely, intimidate and pressure—Taiwan. (An invasion may be unnecessary. See, for instance, Hong Kong.) Or it could merely be that China wants to be the dominant force in Asia, a goal that Xi is on his way to accomplishing through economic and diplomatic means, using his military maneuvers as a fulcrum to neutralize U.S. military power.
To counter this tactic, the U.S. needs to maintain some military presence—hence the three aircraft carriers doing exercises in the region, among many other moves—but it also needs to step up its economic and diplomatic game.
A fitting P.S.: How many Chinese planes flew over Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Tuesday, the day after the highest-ever 56 flights on Monday? According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, one flight—just one. (There probably won’t be many headlines about that.) Was the cause of all the fear and trembling merely a weekend air party? Is it all over now, or will there be another 50 flights tomorrow? The fact is, those 133 Chinese flights over the zone on Friday through Monday—and the single flight on Tuesday—comprise but a small piece of the grand competition, and not a very important one at that.