Nearly one month after reports emerged of an incident in the Taiwan Strait involving Chinese aircraft, a new article portrays the situation as being far more serious
The Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper yesterday had an article in which it claimed that eight Chinese fighter aircraft, rather than two as initially reported, were involved in the June 29 incident in the Taiwan Strait, and that two of those went well beyond Taiwan’s side of the center line, taking them near Taiwan’s east coast.
The report also states that Sukhoi-27 and Su-30 aircraft were involved, with the aircraft coming in four waves of two fighters. The two aircraft that came within 150km off Taiwan’s each coast near Hualien — bringing Taipei within range of their air-to-ground missiles for a full 43 minutes — and to Japan’s ADIZ near the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), were Su-30s, the article claims, adding that Taiwanese and Japanese fighters were scrambled to chase off the Chinese aircraft.
If true, such action by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) would be escalation on an unprecedented scale.
Initial reports of the incident, which emerged late last month, said two Chinese Su-27s had been shadowing a high-altitude US U-2 surveillance aircraft and that in the process, one or two of the Chinese fighters had briefly crossed into Taiwan’s side of the imaginary median line in the Taiwan Strait. Follow-up reports argued that the incident was accidental.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense yesterday vehemently denied the information contained in the Apple Daily report. And for a reason — they are very likely false.
Readers are well aware that I am no big fan of Beijing’s claims on Taiwan or Chinese expansionism in the region, but such rash action as that described in the article sounds out of character for the Chinese Communist Party, especially at a time of high tensions in the region marked by growing apprehension among China’s neighbors and, perhaps most importantly, when relations between Taipei and Beijing are at their best in decades. It would make no sense whatsoever for Beijing to threaten Taiwan when its policy of annexing the latter appears to be on track. Furthermore, Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections in January next year; the leadership in Beijing remembers all too well (the 1995-1996 missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait) how self-defeating saber rattling can be in the lead-up to elections in Taiwan: The surest way for Beijing to give votes to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and to have Taiwanese rally round the flag, is to threaten them militarily.
Almost invading Taiwanese airspace at this time would also make it likelier that the US would agree to sell Taiwan the 66 F-16C/D aircraft it has been seeking since 2007. Beijing, which sees such a sale as a “red line,” is well aware that Washington will likely not release the aircraft for Taiwan. Unless, that is, China makes it obvious, by being overly belligerent, that Taiwan needs them.
It is also interesting to note that the article, which does not identify any sources, comes mere days after Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) told the legislature that Taiwan’s hopes of getting the F-16C/Ds had all but vanished, making him the first senior Taiwanese politician to make such a claim publicly. Doubtlessly, someone passed on this “information” to the Apple Daily as a means to increase pressure on Taipei and Washington over the F-16s, on which a decision is expected to be announced on Oct. 1.
Then there’s the issue of Japan, its ADIZ and the Diaoyutai islets. It’s one thing for Chinese fishing vessels or marine security ships to come close to the disputed islands; it’s another one altogether to send modern multi-role fighter aircraft close to the area. Such provocation would only serve to strengthen the US-Japan alliance and encourage the latter to accelerate the modernization of its forces and deployments within the region, thus further “boxing in” China. Here again, Beijing would gain nothing from such an outcome.
Lastly, it is very difficult to believe that if, as the article claims, Japan was forced to scramble its own aircraft to intercept the Su-30s, such information would not eventually have been leaked to conservative Japanese media in the almost two months that have elapsed since the incident took place.
The CCP and the PLA may be strongly nationalistic, but they are not fools. China will escalate, but it will do so gradually, not by suddenly dispatching modern combat aircraft between Taiwan and Japan.