Taiwan and the U.S. Search for Best Response as China Enters Taiwanese Air Defense Zone

On May 30th, Taiwan reported the largest intrusion of China’s air force into its air defense zone in months. The flyover of the Taiwanese-controlled Pratas Islands included six J-11 and six J-16 fighter planes, in addition to two H-6 bombers. Taiwanese fighters were then sent up to monitor these activities and warn Chinese aircraft. Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, has complained of similar missions over the last 2 years, asserting that Chinese aircraft incursions are designed to test their responses and make them scramble. Beijing has yet to comment on this most recent incursion, but Chinese officials have long explained such incidents as drills intended to protect the country’s sovereignty and counter “collusion” with foreign forces, referring to the U.S.’s support of Taiwanese sovereignty. As Chinese military operations continue to push boundaries, those concerned about the possibility of a major clash over Taiwan remain on high alert. 

Taiwan and many American defense officials have concluded that the Chinese are conducting “gray zone warfare,” an irregular form of conflict that avoids an actual shooting war but aims to subdue the opponent through exhaustion against self-governing Taiwan. This approach includes demonstrations of air power, amphibious landing exercises, naval patrols, cyber attacks, and diplomatic isolation. Admiral Lee Hsiming, former commander of the Taiwanese military, told Reuters that these ongoing encroachments are “super effective,” giving the analogy that “You say it’s [the Taiwan Strait] your garden, but it turns out that it is your neighbor who’s hanging out in the garden all the time. With that action, they are making a statement that it’s their garden – and that garden is one step away from your house.” Tan Kafei, the Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, has justified these tactics and spoke recently about their distaste for U.S. involvement in the Taiwan dispute, saying, “We urge the U.S. side to recognize the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue.” However, according to Biden’s February 2022 strategy review, the U.S. plans to strengthen its long-term position and commitment in South Asia and the Pacific Islands, emphasizing the intention to counter Chinese hegemony: “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.” 

These Chinese threats to Taiwanese sovereignty must be responded to in a non-escalatory manner without creating a pretext for conventional warfare. The fear of a full-scale Chinese invasion already looms large, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with a senior Taiwanese security official in the intelligence community reporting that Chinese military and government agencies have switched from their long-simmering theoretical talks about forcefully seizing Taiwan to actually discussing and formulating plans for possible military action. In response to concerns over more intense military confrontation, Biden has created speculation as to whether the U.S. has adjusted its policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan to a stronger stance, saying on May 23 that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force. The White House quickly noted that these comments did not accurately reflect U.S. policy, but not all analysts are convinced. China warned the U.S. to “be cautious in words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and not send any wrong signal to pro-Taiwan independence and separatist forces – so it won’t cause serious damage to the situation across the Taiwan Strait and China-US relations.” 

As Chinese air expeditions and increasingly frequent training drills inflame agitation between Beijing and Taipei, the U.S. must refrain from heightening Chinese animosity towards themselves and the Taiwanese while providing support so that Taiwan can display credible deterrence to invasion and launch coordinated responses to further gray zone warfare. According to the State Department and U.S. law, they are committed to “assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability” and oppose any one-sided change in China-Taiwan relations. However, Chinese innovations in irregular warfare require a reimagining – from both the U.S. and Taiwan – of what this commitment requires to successfully ensure Taiwanese freedom.