China has sent a carrier strike group and dozens of warplanes into the region around Taiwan in one of its biggest operations in months. The activity comes as Beijing accuses the US and Canada of “inciting conflict” by sailing through the Taiwan Strait, and as Xi Jinping calls for “comprehensive” military combat readiness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The Republic of China military, which uses Taiwan’s formal name, on Monday said a Chinese carrier strike group passed 111km to the south-east of the island on its way to the western Pacific for training. It said 11 Chinese warplanes were detected in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) since 5am. They added to 26 planes and 13 ships detected around Taiwan in the previous 24 hours, one of the biggest daily totals since July.
The PLA strike group was being led by the aircraft carrier Shandong, but it was not clear what exercises it was taking part in.
In recent years the PLA has greatly increased its military targeting of Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist party considers to be a province of China and threatens to “reunify” by force. Taiwan’s government and people overwhelmingly reject the prospect of Chinese rule. Warplanes and ships of the PLA have been sent into the ADIZ on a near daily basis, although recent weeks have been quieter with several active typhoons passing through the region.
The renewed PLA activity immediately followed a freedom of navigation operation (Fonop) by the US and Canadian navies, which sailed two warships through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday. Chinese state media accused the two of attempting to “raise tensions and flex their military muscles at China’s doorstep”. It warned Washington that there was “a limit to Beijing’s patience” and said the more frequently US and its allies sailed through “China’s waters”, the greater chance there was of a “head-on conflict”.
It also comes a few days after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, inspected a Chinese army base in the north-east and called for “comprehensive” enhancements in combat readiness. State media said Xi “urged efforts to improve the level of combat preparedness, strengthen the training of key and difficult subjects, and build new combat capabilities”.
Some analysts believe the activity could be a sign of new training exercises to target Taiwan, with the Shandong signifying the potential for ship-launched fighter jet flights, as seen in the drills staged earlier this year in response to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, meeting with the US House speaker, Kevin McCarthy. Those drills marked the first time J-15s had been detected inside the ADIZ, and the launches from the east of the island suggested the PLA was practising strikes on Taiwan from an encirclement-style posture, analysts said at the time.
J-15s were not among the planes detected by Taiwan on Sunday and Monday. All but one of the 26 planes detected on Sunday crossed the median line, a de facto border in the Taiwan Strait. The line has, until recent years, served as a significant barrier and was only crossed on rare and significant occasions.
Maps of the ADIZ incursions on Sunday, provided by Taiwan, showed unusual flight paths, with J-16 fighters staying on Taiwan’s side of the line for extended periods of time. The paths indicated the PLA continuing to train new strategies, after conducting a full aerial encirclement of Taiwan’s main island last month.
“The passage of the Shandong warship group through the Bashi Strait, coupled with resumption of ADIZ intrusions, suggests that China may be initiating a new round of training exercises around Taiwan,” said Duan Dang, a freelance South China Sea observer.
“I anticipate that China will escalate military activities around Taiwan in the coming months, strategically aiming to influence public opinion in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential election scheduled for January next year.”