Executive Summary: CHINA’S INCREASING MILITARY ASSERTIVENESS AGAINST TAIWAN
Megan Proudfoot and Rebecca Pantani, Weapons and Tactics
Week of Monday, October 4, 2021
Warplane taking off
On October 4, 2021, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force sent 56 warplanes into Taiwan’s southwestern air-defense identification zone. The planes were sent in two waves, a larger wave of 52 planes and a smaller one of four planes sent hours later. The first wave consisted of 34 J-16 fighters, two Su-30 fighters, two Y-9 patrol planes, two KJ-500 radar early-warning planes, and twelve H-6 bombers, while the second wave consisted of just four J-16s. This demonstration of airpower came three days after National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. With the context that one of China’s key foreign policy goals is gaining control of Taiwan, it is likely that this activity was a political statement signifying China’s eventual goal to launch an attack. It is very likely that this air action served two main purposes: it allowed China to probe Taiwan’s air defenses, while also intimidating Taiwan by displaying their air capabilities. Despite this, China will likely be hesitant to launch an imminent attack for fear of U.S. involvement.
Relations between Taiwan and China have been difficult in the past and continue to create instability in the region and internationally. Taiwan has considered itself an independent political entity since 1949, however, China views the island as part of its territory and has promised to proceed with a unification in the future. Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed on October 9, 2021 his desire to unify the two countries peacefully, but the recent plane waves over Taiwan’s airspace seem to suggest an eventual use of force to achieve said goal. Tensions significantly escalated in 2016, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen refused to endorse a formal declaration that increased cross-strait political ties. At the same time, the Chinese government has undertaken various aggressive military actions, in particular flying jets near the island both recently and in the past. In light of the latest jet flyover, the situation will likely become more unstable. While China has a stronger international position due to its formal United Nations recognition, Taiwan still maintains a close relation with global allies that would likely intervene in the case of an escalation. Moreover, a future unification of the two States would likely alter Asia’s power balance, giving the Chinese government a significant advantage over its opponents.
The aim of Chinese actions is almost certainly to assert their military power, destabilize Taiwan, and send a message regarding their determination to gain control of Taiwan. Sending a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s airspace is likely to demoralize the Taiwanese population, who fears military engagement, while simultaneously stoking Chinese nationalism since much of China’s population supports unification. Furthermore, sending warplanes into Taiwan’s airspace likely allows China to probe Taiwan’s defenses and vulnerabilities, while also testing how aggressive they can be before the U.S. becomes involved. Militarily, responding to China’s regular intrusions almost certainly negatively affects Taiwan, since its airpower is much weaker than China’s. Additionally, if China continues to send warplanes into Taiwanese airspace, Taiwan's relative vigilance may decrease, as their defenses would likely become stagnant if China remains noncombative but invasive for a long period. In this case, Taiwan would likely be vulnerable if China chose to invade. It is very likely that these regular incursions are used as a tactic to establish China’s presence in Taiwan and to demonstrate that China believes that Taiwan is their territory.
While China is likely to continue this demonstration of air capabilities, it is unlikely to invade Taiwan in the immediate future. An invasion would almost certainly be too high of a risk for China, which aims to become an economic, military, and cultural global leader. Taking over a democratic country with a powerful ally such as the U.S. would very likely have significant consequences, ranging from international ostracization to war. Either of these options would almost certainly affect international supply chains, which much of China’s economy depends on. Furthermore, while China is currently in a strong military position, it is very likely they would lose a significant number of troops and resources if the U.S. decided to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf. Invading Taiwan could also have significant domestic risks; specifically, if the invasion went poorly, it would very likely tarnish the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reputation. A failed invasion would likely lead citizens to question the leadership’s judgment and competence, and if the global supply chains are interrupted, it is very likely that the CCP would lose support from Chinese society. While it is unlikely China will invade Taiwan due to the numerous associated risks, it will almost certainly continue its tactics of intimidating Taiwan in pursuit of the objective to eventually gain control of the country.
A formal declaration of independence by Taiwan’s government would likely greatly change the balance of power between the two countries. Currently, the existence of “Two Chinas” as two separate nations is opposed by China and not recognized on a global scale. A formal declaration, instead, would almost certainly be impossible for the Chinese government to ignore. The plane demonstrations on October 4, 2021 can be perceived as a warning to Taiwanese President Tsai to not move in this direction. Considering that China has not renounced the possibility of using force to gain control of the island, and due to its growing aggression, it is unlikely for Taiwan to provoke further escalation with such a declaration, especially if not backed by other States. While the international community may act to diminish Chinese military actions, it is unlikely that it will declare strong support to Taiwan's eventual independence stance. Therefore, it is very unlikely that the Taiwanese government will make a formal declaration of independence in the near future.
Due to limited military and economic resources, Taiwan has little alternative to its current strategy of sending its own fighter jets into the air to monitor Chinese flights. Consequently, it is very likely that Taiwan will focus on developing diplomatic relationships with the U.S. in order to raise the risks involved for China if they were to invade. The low possibility of the U.S. getting involved is likely enough to make China more hesitant to invade Taiwan, for fear that such an action may evolve into a global war that would disrupt the international supply chains. Additionally, Taiwan may focus on building up its military and economic resources to serve as deterrence in demonstrating that they will not be an easy target.
The Weapons and Tactics (W/T) Team will continue monitoring the actions of the Chinese government towards Taiwan and vice versa. The actions will be analyzed in cooperation with the PACOM Team, which focuses on collecting information regarding Asia. Threat Hunters and Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers will continue to track related news and events.
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 War fears rise as the Chinese air force sends another 56 warplanes towards Taiwan, Forbes, October 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidaxe/2021/10/04/possible-war-looms-as-the-chinese-air-force-sends-another-56-warplanes-toward-taiwan/?sh=66e1387658e4
 Why China-Taiwan relations are so tense, Council of Foreign Relations, May 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-taiwan-relations-tension-us-policy
 China’s Xi vows peaceful ‘unification’ with Taiwan, days after sending a surge of warplanes near the island, The Washington Post, October 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/10/09/china-xi-taiwan-unification-speech/
 Two Chinas, But Only One Answer, Brookings, July 1999, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/two-chinas-but-only-one-answer/