Beijing, which claims Taiwan is an inseparable part of the People’s Republic of China, has increasingly ignored the median line, sending sorties closer to Taiwan in what is known as gray zone tactics intended to exhaust and intimidate Taiwan’s smaller military.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Monday’s incursion set a “new high” and would pose “severe challenges” to security in the Taiwan Strait.
“The People’s Liberation Army’s continued military harassment could easily cause a sharp increase in tensions and worsen regional security,” it said in a statement, referring to the official name of China’s military. “We call on the Beijing authorities to take responsibility and immediately stop such destructive unilateral actions.”
The Taiwanese military said it was monitoring the situation and had dispatched aircraft, navy vessels and land-based missile systems to respond. When asked about the incursion at a news briefing Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said: “Taiwan is part of China. There is no such thing as the ‘median line.’”
Military observers in Taiwan said the reason for the escalation, which came a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan in an effort to stabilize deteriorating ties, was not obvious. Chinese Vice President Han Zheng is set to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
103 PLA aircraft and 9 PLAN vessels around Taiwan were detected by 6 a.m.(UTC+8) today. R.O.C. Armed Forces have monitored the situation and tasked CAP aircraft, Navy vessels, and land-based missile systems to respond these activities. pic.twitter.com/YjebwioA4v
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) September 18, 2023
“It stands to reason that when high-level officials from the United States and China are in talks, they will create a more relaxed atmosphere,” said Shu Hsiao-huang, associate research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
“In the past, when incursions hit new heights, it was usually in response to a specific event,” he said, “but this time doesn’t seem to be in response to anything.”
Taiwan’s typhoon season may have prevented the Chinese military from sending planes earlier, or the PLA may simply be conducting large-scale exercises, according to Shu. China’s Shandong aircraft carrier was seen last Monday sailing through the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. Dozens of PLA ships and war craft were detected in the Western Pacific, possibly in response to the U.S. series of military exercises held with Indo-Pacific allies in August.
China has said for years that it seeks “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan but will take it by force if necessary. In recent years, ties between the two sides have broken down following the election of Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party is seen as less favorable to Beijing. As China-U.S. relations have deteriorated, cross-strait tensions have also risen.
In the days following a high-profile visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August last year, the PLA fired missiles around Taiwan and sent more than 200 military aircraft and more than 50 warships in a show of force, conducting military exercises that encircled the main island. Since then, China has created a “new normal” of PLA aircraft regularly crossing the median line.
Monday’s incursion included China’s fourth-generation fighter jets, the J-10 and the J-16, as well as refueling planes. A map released by the Taiwanese Defense Ministry showed some of the aircraft crossing the median line and continuing past the southern tip of Taiwan’s main island into the Bashi Channel, potentially cutting Taiwan off from the Philippines, where the United States will soon have access to new military bases.
“They are trying to create a new normal — to say they don’t need a special reason. They can display their military might at any time. They want to put constant pressure on Taiwan’s perimeter. One of the things they want to say is that they can blockade Taiwan anytime if they want to,” said Lin Ying-yu, a professor who teaches PLA studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.