China is slowly stepping up military pressure against Taiwan. How far up can China go on the escalation ladder of coercion? China has real options, a record of calculated risk under Xi Jinping, deep concerns regarding the future course of US-Taiwan relations, and a lack of realistic soft alternatives to "seduce" given the rejection of "one country, two systems" in Taiwan. This unique combination of factors makes further escalation likely, but not certain. China’s future decisions will reflect a cost-benefit analysis regarding the outcome and the consequences on Taiwan’s international position of coercive actions. This means that Taiwan has maneuvering space to maintain the status quo if it receives sufficient support from the United States and other international partners.
Squeezing Taiwan’s airspace
Since last year, and even more so since the reelection of Tsai Ing-wen in January 2020, military pressure has again taken center stage in the Taiwan Strait. A turning point occurred in March 2019 when two fighter jets from People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) intruded into Taiwan’s side of the median line. The unofficial boundary between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had not been challenged by the PLA since 1999. The move opened a new chapter in cross-strait relations – a "new normal" (新常态) to use one of Xi Jinping’s signature terms out of context.
Since the 2019 incursion, the PLAAF crossed the line twice according to publicly released information. It happened in February 2020 and again in August 2020, in an operation designed to coincide with US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s visit to Taiwan. Such flights test the reaction time of Taiwan’s air defense. They force the Taiwanese Air Force to scramble and intercept, and thus create a risk of incident. They essentially send the message that the Chinese side does not fear the consequences of an accidental collision or a decision to take down an aircraft – the pressure to avoid escalation is on Taiwan, the defensive side. Indeed during the February intrusion, one of the Chinese J-11 fighters locked on its fire control radar on a Taiwanese F-16 jet. At the same time, China’s Eastern Theater Command has been conducting regular flights in close proximity to the median line, forcing Taiwan’s Air Force to scramble to get ready for a possible interception.
But the newest significant development is taking place in the Southwestern corner of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, close to the Bashi Channel. The PLAAF has exerted pressure on Taiwan’s air defense system by conducting circumnavigation flights around the island since the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Deployments of H-6K bomber formations escorted by fighter planes and KJ-500 early warning or Y-8 electronic warfare aircrafts aim to acquire the capacity to open an eastern front in a Taiwan conflict scenario – many Taiwanese air and sea assets are based on the eastern coast of the island.
The flights stopped during the Taiwanese presidential campaign and resumed shortly after Tsai Ing-wen won reelection in January 2020. Since May, they have again stopped even though the summer months used to be circumnavigation season for the PLAAF. This appears to be the result of a greater US American military presence in the area and in the South China Sea, where China is compelled to respond. It also explains China’s current focus on the Southwest of Taiwan. Several exercises have taken place in that zone, including the PLAAF’s first nighttime training mission. An air presence in the Bashi channel area, between Taiwan and the Philippines, sends political messages across the Strait but also towards the South China Sea. And as Taiwan’s military power is relatively concentrated in the north of the island, there seems to be an intention on the Chinese side to play with stretching Taiwan’s defense resources.