Taiwanese officials have spotted Chinese drones flying around the Taiwanese-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea and, on Wednesday, the head of Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council said Taiwan could open fire on the drones.
Speaking before a session of Taiwan’s parliament, reported by Reuters, Lee Chung-wei, the chairman of Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council, said if Chinese drones enter Taiwanese airspace, Taiwan’s rules of engagement permit Taiwanese forces to shoot down the Chinese drones.
“After it enters it will be handled under the rules. If we need to open fire, we open fire,” Lee said.
Lee noted the Chinese drones have not yet breached Taiwanese airspace, saying, “They have never entered our restricted waters and airspace, they’ve just flown around them at a certain distance.”
Lee’s warning comes amid growing concerns about a Chinese invasion of the island nation, and on the same day Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan’s forces will fight and “defend ourselves to the very last day” if attacked.
While Taiwan governs itself as an independent nation, China claims Taiwan is part of its territory. Taiwan operates an airfield on the Pratas Islands. China has similarly asserted a sovereignty claim over the Pratas Islands.
The recent drone flights near the Pratas Islands are not China’s first concerning actions around the disputed islands. In May 2020, reports indicated China was planning to hold massive beach landing drills in the Hainan province, not far from the Pratas Islands, raising concerns the drills could be practice for a real attempt to take control of the islands from Taiwan.
Reuters reported that in October, a Taiwanese civilian flight between Taiwan’s main island and the Pratas Islands was forced to turn back after warnings from Hong Kong air traffic controllers. The Taiwanese flight had been carrying out a routine weekly supply run to the island at the time.
After China passed new national security legislation over Taiwan, Hong Kong residents have reportedly fled by boat to the Pratas Islands. The Pratas Islands are the nearest Taiwan-controlled territory to Hong Kong. Reuters reported Taiwan has intercepted at least one boat close to the Pratas carrying people fleeing from Hong Kong to Taiwan.
The Chinese drone flights around the Pratas Islands also come amid a pattern of Chinese military flights around the mainland. Chinese warplanes have flown around Taiwan on a near-daily basis in what appears as an effort to exhaust Taiwan’s smaller air forces, which often have to deploy to intercept the Chinese warplanes. Recently, Chinese fighter pilots have been practicing to cut off Taiwan from avenues of U.S. and international support. Isolating Taiwan from outside support would prove critical should China choose to invade the island.