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The many signals China is sending with its Taiwan flyovers

Why is the Chinese military sending so many planes near Taiwan?

Huge Flag Flyover Rehearsal Ahead Of National Day Celebration
A Taiwanese soldier stands guard in Taoyuan, Taiwan, as a Chinook helicopter flies overhead during a rehearsal for the country’s Double Ten National Day celebration.
Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

On October 1, the Chinese military sent a batch of 38 warplanes to bother Taiwan. Over the next four days, Taiwan says that the Chinese military deployed about 150 aircraft into its air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, an area that extends past Taiwan’s airspace within which aircraft still have to identify themselves. Taiwan’s defense minister called the provocation the “most serious” in 40 years.

While this was a record number of incursions in such a short time frame — the Chinese military sent 56 planes on Monday alone — it fits into a larger trend of bubbling tensions in the region. According to the Taiwanese government, China has sent more than 600 incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ so far in 2021, up from a total of 380 in 2020.

China’s provocations underscore a long history, and maybe a more complicated geopolitical future. Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China, was established in 1949 when US-backed Chinese nationalists fled after the Communist Party took control of mainland China. While the US has only formal ties with the People’s Republic of China and has recognized it as the “sole legal government” of China since 1979, Washington has also maintained informal economic and securities ties with Taiwan.

This was always an uneasy status quo, especially as the Chinese Communist Party has never abandoned the idea of bringing Taiwan back under its full control and reunifying China. In the meantime, Taiwan itself forged its own identity and economic power on the world stage, and has been, since the 1990s, a democracy.

Of course, the “strategic competition” (as we’re calling it now) between the US and China has put the region in focus, making the question of Taiwan’s future more urgent. Chinese President Xi Jinping has tried to consolidate power and bring restive parts of the country — the Xinjiang region, Hong Kong — under his control. The question now is: Is Taiwan next? And if it is, what happens now?

China’s warplanes are forcing officials and experts to think about these challenges. The provocations are an effort by the Chinese government to reiterate to a global audience its view of Taiwan as essential to China’s national security interests. Internationally, it’s also a response to the US’s own coalition-building the region, said Raymond Kuo, an expert on international security and East Asia who will be a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. [Author’s note: Kuo’s views are his own and do not reflect the positions of the RAND Corporation.]

“A lot of the countries in the region — Japan, South Korea, Philippines, probably — they look at Taiwan as a litmus test for US commitment and Chinese assertiveness, which just puts China’s back up,” Kuo said.

Kuo has worked in foreign policy for years, including with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the left-leaning and typically more pro-Taiwanese independence party. Vox spoke with him about what’s going on in the region, why the Chinese military is carrying out these flyovers, and what it means for Taiwan and US-China relations.

A transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

It seems the big headline is that China’s military is flying an unusually large number of planes over Taiwan’s “air identification defense zone.” What’s going on there?

Raymond Kuo

There have been an unusually large number of incursions this year. In the five days [starting October 1], there was an unusually high concentration of them, as well.

The important thing to recognize is that they’re entering the air identification defense zone, the AIDZ, but not Taiwanese airspace. Under international law, your airspace extends 12 nautical miles outside your land boundary, for lack of a better term. AIDZ — I think about 20 countries have declared AIDZ — is, essentially, when you enter this zone, we want you to identify yourself to give our air defenses more time to figure out who you are. So [China’s military] has been entering in this southwestern corner, they’ve been vectoring around Taiwan, so kind of parallel to the Taiwanese territorial waters and airspace.

But where it used to be intel planes, now it’s bombers escorted by fighters and electronic warfare planes. It’s much more about how, “We [the Chinese military] have the ability to launch a large strike, we can do it successively over many days. And we’re not just using strike aircraft like bombers, but also supporting them with the fighters that you need to defend those bombers, as well as electronic warfare planes to jam signals.”

Jen Kirby

What is the Chinese government trying to accomplish with these incursions?

Raymond Kuo

We’ve got a couple different signaling audiences.

There’s Chinese domestic politics. National Day was October 1. It’s often a day for the Chinese government to emphasize their nationalist credentials and project hope for the future about reunifying China, whether that means Taiwan or suppressing the Uyghurs or that kind of thing.

There’s a Taiwanese politics component, specifically an attempt to demoralize the public that China is stronger and you can’t win. The quote-unquote pragmatic choice is just to unify with us. Those tend to backfire. In 1996, China launched a couple missiles across the Taiwan Strait. It ended up — there was an election in Taiwan at the time — boosting the less pro-China candidate. And recently, with the protests and the crackdown in Hong Kong, going into this most recent election the current president, Tsai Ing-wen [of the pro-Taiwan independence Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP], was looking a little bit shaky, especially among youth. But when all that happened in Hong Kong, it was like, “Nope, we don’t want this to happen to Taiwan.”

It also feeds into Taiwanese party politics. The Kuomintang Party [Taiwan’s other major political party, which favors closer ties with mainland China] talking point is to say things like, “Well, the DPP can’t stabilize Taiwanese-Chinese relations. This is clearly an example of that — look at China’s belligerence, we’re better caretakers of the cross-strait relations.”

Then there’s international politics. The US, the UK, and four other countries are doing military exercises in the East Philippine Sea. So it’s partly as a demonstration of, “Stay out, we have a dog in this fight as well, we have the ability to strike too.”

Jen Kirby

As you said, the Chinese military has increased the number of flyovers in the past couple of years, and it is using different types of aircraft. Broadly, is there a sense of why the Chinese government is escalating this show in recent months?

Raymond Kuo

There has been a recent push this year, but also last year. I think, in part, that’s a response to US foreign policy. Just talking about 2020. Last year, the Donald Trump administration took kind of a much harder turn against China, whereas even up until late 2019, there was hope that you could have strategic dialogue, and we’ve worked with China on, say, opioids. Instead, you start seeing a nosedive in US-China cooperation, so part of this is also a signal to say, “Look, when our relationship goes bad, we will start not working with you on a variety of things. And also we’re going to be more interested in asserting our interests over Taiwan, in the South China Sea, and other areas.”

I think recently — not just this October, but the previous few months — has been a response to the broader tightening of US alliances in the region. The Joe Biden administration has, kind of surprisingly to me, quickly coalesced a coalition against China and tightened those alliance relationships that have been atrophying a bit under the Trump administration.

A lot of the countries in the region — Japan, South Korea, Philippines probably — they look at Taiwan as a litmus test for US commitment and Chinese assertiveness, which just puts China’s back up.

Jen Kirby

Oh, that’s interesting about Biden’s alliances. I was curious if the recent AUKUS deal among the US, the UK, and Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines might have played into what is happening over Taiwan right now?

Raymond Kuo

I’m not sure it’s directly related. It’s all part and parcel of this larger coalition building. But I don’t necessarily think that these overflights, or these incursions, are a tit-for-tat response.

Jen Kirby

How do you assess the level of fear or concern within Taiwan that the Chinese military may attempt a real incursion by force?

Raymond Kuo

It’s really hard to tell, unfortunately. Part of the issue is public opinion polling in Taiwan can be fairly partisan. Unlike in the United States, where we have the independent polling firms, and we have a lot of them, we have far fewer polling firms in Taiwan, and they tend to be associated with one of the main political parties. So for big, complex issues, it’s really difficult to determine that kind of thing.

Obviously, the incursions have made front pages of the newspapers. But it’s not like you see those old World War II newspapers, where they take up the entire banner and everything below it.

Jen Kirby

Why does the Chinese Communist Party still seem to care so much about Taiwan?

Raymond Kuo

A lot of people talk about the ideational stuff, “the century of humiliation” [the time from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century during which China lost control over portions of its territory to foreigners] and redressing those kind of wrongs.

There’s also the sense of, “You should be part of us, we represent China, you guys are Chinese, you need to get on board with this project of national unification.” It’s difficult to tell in China how much that’s true of the public broadly, because of controls. You can very easily say that the CCP tends to view it this way. But it’s also impossible to say how much the Chinese public actually views it this way, or cares.

There’s also the economic side of it. Taiwan is close to the 20th-largest economy in the world, with a major concentration of semiconductors and other high-tech enterprises. Getting that, especially if it did it without a fight, would be fantastic for China. It would give an immediate boost to its economy and give China industries that complement very much their specialization in manufacturing and production.

There’s the domestic political consequences for President Xi Jinping. Since 2013, he has been consolidating his power more and more. You get the sort of personalization of politics, and also the volatility of politics that happens as well. The more he can tie himself to successfully reuniting China, getting Taiwan to come back into the fold, the better it is for him in terms of his domestic politics.

I said econ, domestic politics, the ideational stuff, and then there’s the legacy of the civil war. This is taught in the history books in China, and it’s emphasized. So through the educational system, you’ll get the “this is why they care.”

Jen Kirby

If China wants to bring Taiwan into its orbit, these military provocations maybe don’t seem like the most productive way to do it?

Raymond Kuo

My response to this is there’s two things. China thinks that the coercive approach to get Taiwan to capitulate — capitulation through demoralization — is the most effective approach they have. A carrot won’t work, so they have to use a stick.

The Chinese government is not stupid. They understand there’s going to be backlash in Taiwan. I’m not sure, which makes me more concerned. It could be that this is the best option they have, and so they’re just going to use it. It could be that they just really don’t care, so they’re signaling — if you’re dividing it into domestic politics, Taiwanese politics, international politics — they either don’t care about the Taiwanese politics, it’s just for the domestic and international side.

There’s also, of course, the military benefits. You’re probing Taiwanese defenses, you’re exhausting the Taiwanese air force.

Jen Kirby

Can you talk a little bit about that? What kind of strain does this put on Taiwanese defenses?

Raymond Kuo

This is a bit of a pattern with China and, say, Japan. Japan has more capabilities and defenses than Taiwan. In 2012, Chinese planes entered around the Senkaku Islands. [Both Japan and China claimed these disputed islands in the East China Sea.] After a month, Japanese officials told the United States, “We are really stretched thin, and we’re not going to be able to keep this pace, so we really need you guys to step in and get involved.”

It’s the same sort of thing. If China can stretch Japan’s defenses in a place that’s further away, they can absolutely do that to Taiwan too. I’ve seen reports Taiwan is considering using unmanned drones as a way to monitor. The problem, of course, is those drones tend to be less effective. If it does come to a shooting war, then you have the wrong assets up in the air.

Jen Kirby

So the strain for Taiwan is basically that they must prepare for the possibility of a real invasion or incursion, even if it’s just a flyover right now.

Raymond Kuo

Exactly, the worst-case scenario response reaction.

Jen Kirby

If Taiwan’s defenses are strained, what does that mean for Taiwan in terms of how allies and partners can respond?

Raymond Kuo

A lot of what we’re seeing is not just US and Taiwanese dialogue. Earlier this year, Biden’s first two White House summits were with the Japanese prime minister [Suga Yoshihide] and the Korean president [Moon Jae-in] for a reason. In both of those summits, they mentioned Taiwan. That was the first time in 52 years that [Japan and the US] mentioned Taiwan [in a joint statement]. It might have been the first time for Korea.

I think you’re seeing a little bit of the Taiwanese strategy of saying, “Hey, look, it’s not just us, we are a part of a broader Asia Pacific area. If we’re the first domino, imagine what’s going to happen.”

Taiwan is the focus of more security cooperation in the United States. Whether or not allies could defend Taiwan successfully is one thing, but I think politically, you are seeing a coalition come together. And for Taiwan, that gives it a bit more space to maneuver, and I think it tends to offset some of the fear generated by this incursion.

Jen Kirby

The US has reframed its relationship with China — I think the new term is “strategic competition” — and is more directly challenging its authoritarianism and economic practices. I wonder if Taiwan has risen in importance to the US because it is a convenient foil to some of the US’s other geopolitical aims?

Raymond Kuo

It’s hard for me to not think that would be the case, in part because when you think about economics or security, Taiwan is not necessarily the lynchpin of the region, but it is heavily involved in the region, whether it’s supply chains and semiconductors that are necessary in both South Korea and Japan, or if it’s access, past the first island chain for the US Navy. Even more than just an indication of US political commitment to the region, Taiwan is pretty focal.

At least in my mind, the US turn toward Asia was always going to happen, and there would always be multiple economic, strategic, political factors that would force the United States to grapple with how to deal with this issue.

The debate that we’re having right now in the United States is between (for lack of a better term) restrainers and people who may be more of the traditional sort of national security establishment, as to whether or not Taiwan is worth the military or domestic cost for the United States. That cost, of course, being imposed by China.

I think even on the restrainers’ side, there is this recognition that no matter what happens, if the US decides not to defend Taiwan, it would lose something of value. The question is, what would it gain in response to that from, say, China? I think everyone recognizes that there are legitimate national security interests involved, as to whether or not they’re worth the cost that China would impose upon the United States.

Jen Kirby

So if you’re a Taiwan official right now, what do you want to hear from the United States at this particular moment in time? Biden had a kind of confusing statement about how he and Xi agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement.”

Raymond Kuo

I tend to look at institutional signals, as opposed to just off-the-cuff statements. On the institutional side, Taiwan is getting a lot of cooperation, not just with the United States but also, I believe, with other countries of the region, deepening cooperation. From an institutional perspective, it’s like, the trend is all going in one direction.

Jen Kirby

What are you watching for next when it comes to Taiwan?

Raymond Kuo

Certainly something that’s quite important is whether or not China is developing the capabilities that it thinks it can take over Taiwan without a fight, versus the United States and its allies and Taiwan working together to present a credible deterrent force against that invasion scenario.

It’s really hard to determine what the Chinese see regarding how fast is the window of opportunity closing. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have made the case for thinking about China as a declining power, not a rising one. In those sorts of cases, when you’re on the decline, you sense closing windows of opportunity and you tend to lash out. If you sense time is on your side, then you’ll just be patient. These incursions tend to suggest that China does view this as kind of a closing window of opportunity, which is kind of interesting. I don’t know if that’s true. And the only person who would know would be Xi Jinping. If I could get access to him, I’d be paid a lot more.

But I think the US has a really tricky job here. It has to reassure Taiwan and take the lead in solidifying this coalition, but it has to do so in such a way that China doesn’t think “better strike now, or else we’re going to lose this thing forever.” And then the US has to kind of moderate its own policies toward China so it doesn’t jumpstart a war on its own for some other issue area, like the South China Sea. It’s a really tricky balancing act.

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