It may be an undeclared war of attrition designed to run Taiwan’s troops and equipment into the ground.
Taipei says it has spent $1.3 billion scrambling its fighters against the most intense Chinese aggression in 30 years.
Every day for more than two weeks, China’s combat aircraft have breached Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Many have crossed the sensitive median line separating the mainland from the democratic island.
Though they have not flown over the main island itself, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft have repeatedly been probing Taiwan’s borders and defences. And those incursions must be parried by Taiwan’s own forces.
China “is trying to use unilateral military actions to change the security status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and at the same time is testing our response, increasing pressure on our air defences and shrinking our space for activity,” the defence ministry in Taipei says.
“Recently the pressure has been great. To say otherwise would be deceiving people,” Defence Minister Yen De-fa admitted earlier this week.
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For its part, Beijing says its increased military tempo is based on growing “collusion” between Taipei and Washington – including recent visits by senior US officials to the island.
“The more trouble Taiwan creates, the sooner the mainland will decide to teach Taiwan independence forces a hard lesson,” a Communist Party propaganda outlet declared.
Taiwan’s air force is tiny in comparison to that of China’s. And the pressure to respond to the deliberate acts of provocation is mostly falling upon its fleet of ageing F-16 Viper fighter jets.
Up to October 7, the ROC military says Beijing had sent 49 military aircraft across the Taiwan Strait median line this year. Another crossed the line on Thursday.
The PLA also reportedly conducted 1710 aircraft and 1029 vessel sorties within Taiwan’s ‘air defence identification zone’ (ADIZ) – many near the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea.
In response, the Taiwanese military scrambled some 4000 sorties to intercept and monitor these movements.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry recently reported to parliament that the constant pressure was “an attempt to exhaust our air defences”. It was designed to put “enormous pressure” on frontline responders, reducing pilot response times and availability of equipment.
But the pressure is also on Tapei’s budget.
Taipei says the “dramatic increase” in threat had led to a huge blowout in maintenance costs for the “middle-aged” aircraft. And this had to be addressed through a significant spending boost.
So far, the intercepts have burnt through 8.7 per cent ($1.3 billion) of the nation’s defence funding.
“Each time the communist aircraft harass Taiwan, our air force takes to the skies, and it is extremely costly. This isn’t only a burden for Taiwan, but quite a big one for China too,” Premier Su Tseng-chang said Wednesday.
A CALL TO ARMS
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party passed a resolution this week ordering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with the United States.
This follows a threat upon the life of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen by Beijing.
Chinese Communist Party-controlled state media accused President Tsai of “playing with fire”, warning that any further moves towards formal democratic independence would “set off” war and “Tsai will be wiped out”.
The status of Taiwan is of increasing importance to China’s Chairman-for-life Xi Jinping. The autocratic ruler of the one-party state has staked his reputation upon a “reunification” of “One China”. That “One China” will be ruled him himself.
China was “growing strong, the nation is rejuvenating, and unification between the two sides of the Strait is the great trend of history,” Xi told a gathering of party officials and military leaders last year.
He has repeatedly stated that force was a valid means of achieving this.
“The more trouble Taiwan creates, the sooner the mainland will decide to teach Taiwan independence forces a hard lesson,” Communist Party spokesman and editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times Hu Xijin wrote this week. “The only way forward is for the mainland to prepare itself for war fully and to give Taiwan secessionist forces a decisive punishment at any time. As the secessionist forces’ arrogance continues to swell, the historic turning point is getting closer.”
THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
At the weekend, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visited a jet-engine maintenance facility at the Gangshan air base in southern Taiwan to encourage efforts in keeping fighter aircraft airborne.
Taiwan has ordered the expenditure of $87 billion to buy 66 new F-16 Viper jets from the US by 2026. This will bring Taiwan’s fighter force up to some 200 aircraft.
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It also recently announced orders for new homegrown Wan Chien air-to-ground cruise missile and home-built fighter aircraft.
“We are developing systems that are small, numerous, smart, stealthy, fast, mobile, low-cost, survivable, effective, easy to develop, maintain and preserve, and difficult to detect and counter,” Vice Defence Minister Chang Guan-Chung said earlier this week. “We will also emphasise joint effort in training, operational concepts, capability assessment, intelligence sharing, and armament co-operation. These are equally important as the acquisition of hardware.”
All this was in response to what Chang called the PLA’s “realistic training against Taiwan”.
Washington, however, says Taipei’s $2 billion increase in defence spending to $20.2 billion annually was insufficient.
Acting US assistant secretary of defence for East Asia David Helvey said the PLA’s incursions were testing Taiwan’s “ability and preparedness to respond to coercion”.
The US has long promised to assist Taiwan resisting invasion. But it has generally adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to disputes over national identity.
That ambiguity has come under strain as Beijing intensifies its aggressive rhetoric over ownership of the island, which never surrendered to Communist forces after the 1949 revolution.
Countering that rhetoric requires investment, Helvey says.
“These increases, while a step in the right direction, however, are insufficient to ensure that Taiwan can leverage its geography, advanced technology, workforce and patriotic population to channel Taiwan’s inherent advantages necessary for a resilient defence.”
Taipei, he said, should consider the purchase of anti-ship missiles for coastal defence, along with sea mines, mobile artillery, short-range air defence systems and modern surveillance equipment.
Such investments would “send a clear signal” that “an invasion or attack would not come without significant cost,” he added.
Taiwan, – like many nations – has a messy and violent history.
When the Dutch first came to Taiwan in 1623, the country was mostly controlled by its Indigenous population apart from a few small scattered Chinese fishing villages. Occupied by both Holland and Spain, the island was later invaded by retreating ethnic Han loyalists of the Ming Dynasty after a revolt by the Chinese Manchu ethnic minority.
The Han loyalists surrendered to the Quing Dynasty in 1683, which went on to promote ethnic Han settlement on the island. But Japan laid claim to areas not occupied by the Han, resulting in an invasion in 1874.
After losing the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty formally surrendered Taiwan to Tokyo rule in 1895. It remained under Japanese control until being placed under Chinese administration in 1945. The Nationalist dictatorship fled to the island during the Chinese Civil War, with Beijing calling the island a “breakaway province” ever since.
A “median line” was established in the Taiwan Strait during the 1950s by the United States in an attempt to reduce clashes between the mainland Communist Party and the refugee Nationalists in Taiwan.
Beijing last month declared this de facto border to be “non-existent” amid its tense military ‘exercises’ in the air and waters around the island.
“It’s certain that the current status of the island of Taiwan is only a short period in history that will definitely come to an end,” the Global Times decrees. “The initiative of ending this period while minimising losses and maximising gains toward the rise of China in the process is firmly in the hands of the Chinese mainland.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel