When 28 Chinese warplanes streaked through the skies around Taiwan on Tuesday – the largest such fly-by this year – they followed a pattern that has generated alarm among US and Taiwanese military planners.
Some of the People’s Liberation Army planes, including bombers, fighter jets and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, flew east from the Chinese coast around the southern tip of Taiwan. The rest broke off and briefly darted further south towards tiny Pratas Island in the South China Sea before turning back.
The PLA has flown close to the atoll – uninhabited except for a garrison of Taiwanese marines and coastguard officers – once a week on average since September 16, when Taiwan’s defence ministry began releasing detailed data. If all fly-bys into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone between Pratas and the Chinese mainland are included, the patrols have become an almost daily occurrence.
A PLA J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location. Photo: Handout
The exercises signal Beijing’s displeasure with the democratically elected government in Taipei and its successful effort to court greater US support, as seen by a mention in the Group of Seven (G7) communique on June 13. In response to China’s moves, President Joe Biden’s administration has stepped up surveillance flights near Pratas, raising the risk of a confrontation or clash between two of the world’s most powerful militaries.
Beijing’s focus on Pratas serves several aims of President Xi Jinping, highlighting Taiwan’s vulnerability to attack while investigating its defences. The strategy also tests the limits of Washington’s security commitment, and whether it is willing to go to war to defend largely vacant reefs hundreds of miles from the nearest American base.
The aerial campaign shows that Beijing has options for striking a blow against Taipei that fall well short of a dangerous invasion across the 130km (80-mile) Taiwan Strait, which is becoming a more urgent concern for American military planners. Taking Pratas Island – which is located closer to Hong Kong than Taiwan – could give China a new launching ground for future military operations without provoking a full-scale conflict with the US.