Taiwan is facing its worst cross-strait military crisis in over two decades, with the People’s Liberation Army sending dozens of warplanes into the island’s air defence identification zone in the past month as tensions escalate.
Nearly 40 of those incursions involved warplanes crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and mainland China.
According to analysts, passing that sensitive midline is a serious threat to the self-governed island that leaves Taiwan’s air force with little time to respond.
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“Once the PLA warplanes cross the centre line, it only takes 200 seconds to reach the nearest point on our coastline,” said Wang Kung-yi, chairman of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society think tank, referring to northern Hsinchu, which is just 36 nautical miles from the median line.
“And if our forces aren’t decisive enough to intercept the intruders and stop them from reaching our territorial waters 12 nautical miles from the coast, it would only take another 80 seconds for the PLA warplanes to fly to Taipei,” Wang said.
Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. It has been infuriated by warming ties between Taipei and Washington, claiming recent visits to the island by senior US officials – Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and undersecretary of state Keith Krach – violated the one-China policy. There were nearly 80 PLA incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone in response.
The Taiwan Strait median line was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jnr in 1955, and the US then pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it.
Taiwan defence officials say the increased military activity and frequent crossing of the midline – which could result in unintended incidents – is comparable to the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, when the PLA fired missiles into waters around the island in a warning to then president Lee Teng-hui.
The officials say the median line has been crossed by numerous PLA warplanes in the past month. Eighteen warplanes, including bombers and fighter jets, entered the southwest of the island’s air defence identification zone from four directions on September 18, they said. At one stage PLA military aircraft were just 37 nautical miles off the Hsinchu coastline.
The next day, 19 Chinese warplanes including bombers, fighter jets and an anti-submarine aircraft again crossed the midline.
These incursions – and reports that PLA pilots responded over the radio that “there is no median line” when Taiwan’s air force told them to leave – have also raised concerns on the island of 23 million people that they could be heading for war.
After two days of PLA warplanes crossing the centre line, Taiwan’s defence and foreign ministries both held press briefings on September 21 in a bid to draw international attention to the situation. They said the actions could lead to a cross-strait military conflict and they were damaging regional peace and stability. Beijing dismissed Taipei’s claims, saying they were just normal exercises – and that the median line never existed.
According to analysts, the incursions were meant as a psychological attack on the island, both its military and the public, and an effort to establish a norm that PLA warplanes can cross the median line whenever they like.
“These actions indicate that they no longer want to keep the tacit agreement on the centre line,” said Chieh Chung, a national security researcher at the National Policy Foundation in Taipei, an opposition Kuomintang think tank.
“If the PLA regularises this action of crossing the line, it will not only greatly increase pressure on our air defences but it will also raise the potential for unintended incidents between the two sides,” he said.
Wang from the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society said every PLA move had some significance, and in this case it appeared to be an effort to exhaust the Taiwanese air force, which has to respond to each incursion.
“Repeatedly breaching the median line will also eventually make people feel a bit numb to this act and perhaps less concerned about an imminent war – as evidenced by the unfazed stock and financial markets in Taiwan,” he said, adding that a real attack could happen when Taiwanese had dropped their guard.
According to Shu Hsia-huang, a researcher with the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a government think tank in Taipei, the median line crossings were about testing the reaction and attitude of Taiwan’s air force.
“At the same time, [the PLA’s] denial that there even is a median line is a way to air their displeasure over the warming US-Taiwan ties,” Shu said.
But he did not believe the PLA manoeuvres, including its drills near the Taiwan Strait, were intended to provoke a military conflict.
“It is unlikely there will be a war in the near future,” he said, adding that the activities were for training purposes and to keep up the pressure on both Taiwan and the US.
Washington recognises Beijing diplomatically, but relations have deteriorated since Donald Trump became president in 2017 – the two superpowers are at odds on everything from trade to the coronavirus pandemic, security and human rights – while the US and Taiwan have drawn closer.
Breaching the median line is another way to push Washington and Taipei on the one-China principle, according to Zhu Songling, a professor with the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University. “If both Taiwan and the US are not respecting the one-China principle then there’s no way Beijing will observe the centre line,” Zhu said.
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