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Chinese aircraft carry out exercises, pressure Taiwan in South China Sea region

Chinese H-6K bomber, flies in a joint air patrol with Russian aircraft, Dec. 22, 2020. (Russian Ministry of Defence)
February 25, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese aircraft have conducted multiple exercises in the South China Sea region over the past few weeks, including maneuvers in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which experts see as a sustained pressure campaign against Taipei.

Groups of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft flew near the Taiwan-occupied Pratas Islands in the South China Sea twice last week, Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Twitter.

And on Wednesday, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) said that 10 or more bombers belonging to the PLA Southern Theater Command Naval Air Force carried out maritime assault and maritime strike exercises after Lunar New Year festivities ended in mid-February.

The CCTV broadcast did not specify the location of these maneuvers, but the Southern Theater Command is responsible for the South China Sea region, and its forces regularly operate in the area.

The PLA’s flights near the Pratas Islands and Taiwan appear to serve Beijing’s political interests in the Taiwan Strait. China’s ruling Communist Party claims that democratic, self-governing Taiwan is part of its territory to be annexed by force if necessary.

According to Michael Mazza, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Beijing is likely using these operations “to convince Taiwan’s people, government, and military that resistance is ultimately futile; to scare off other countries from deeper engagement in the Taiwan Strait; to normalize the presence of military aircraft in such a way as to reduce foreign concerns about that presence over time.”

ADIZ of Taiwan

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense regularly publicizes incursions by PLA aircraft into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s ADIZ, an area between the Pratas Islands and the Taiwanese mainland.

“The PLA has operated in Taiwan’s ADIZ on a near-daily basis since at least September. These operations most often involve only one or two aircraft, but are occasionally much more substantial,” Mazza said.

The Pratas Islands, which sit roughly 170 nautical miles to the southeast of Hong Kong, are composed of Pratas Island as well as several underwater features and are claimed by both Taiwan and China.

According to Mazza, China’s air exercises could be intended to probe Taiwan’s defenses and test its responses. He said one day China may seek to occupy the islands to coerce Taiwan into unification or as part of an effort to reinforce control over the South China Sea.

Nine PLA fighter and electronic intelligence aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ on Friday, according to the ROC Ministry of National Defense.

And on Saturday, 11 PLA fighters, anti-submarine aircraft, and bombers entered Taiwan’s ADIZ as part of an annual joint exercise, the ministry said.

Mazza also noted that “many of the PLA aircraft we’ve seen flying in Taiwan’s ADIZ are anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The United States (and Japan) are among the best in the business at undersea warfare, so the PLA may be seeking to up its ASW [anti-submarine warfare] game.”

Response to U.S.

Some of the PLA’s recent maneuvers have appeared geared at responding to the presence of U.S. forces in the region.

In late January, PLA aircraft simulated attacks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group, which entered the South China Sea on Jan. 23, the Financial Times reported.

According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, 13 PLA aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ on Jan. 23, and 15 entered on Jan. 24.

On Wednesday, the Chinese state-run Global Times reported that the recent bomber drills by the PLA Southern Theater Command Naval Air Force came at a time when countries from outside the region, including the U.S. and France, were making “provocations” in the South China Sea.

U.S. carrier groups and other naval assets have sailed through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea several times over the past two months, such as the USS Russel’s freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Spratly Islands on Feb. 17.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said that the uptick in Chinese military activity in the South China Sea “demonstrates China’s desire to communicate to the United States and other potential adversaries that it now has the military capabilities to achieve its territorial goals with force.”

“Such signaling is designed to deter these countries from taking actions Beijing finds unfavorable,” Mastro said.

As tensions rise, other countries such as France and the United Kingdom are also sending forces through the region.

In early February, France’s defense minister confirmed that a nuclear attack submarine had recently completed a patrol in the South China Sea. Additionally, last week Naval News reported that a French amphibious assault ship and frigate will transit the South China Sea twice this year.

And in December, Kyodo News reported that the British Navy is planning to send a carrier strike group to Asia for joint exercises with U.S. and Japanese forces.