Why Chinese military’s latest Taiwan sortie suggests PLA is expanding scope of combat training

·4-min read

The PLA’s largest sortie into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone marked another step forward by the Chinese military because it was the first of its kind on the eastern side of the island, according to military analysts.

That side is the furthest from mainland China and hosts two major airbases that could play a key role in any invasion and are sheltered by the mountain ranges in the centre of the island.

Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, said the latest operation “helps the PLA air force improve operational capabilities in line with the leadership directive to train under realistic conditions”.

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He continued: “If [mainland] China decides to invade and conquer Taiwan while countering US military intervention, then the Chinese air force would probably have to be comfortable operating in this region.

“The bottom line is this latest operation, to me, represents the next logical step toward readying the PLA for actual combat”.

Tuesday’s sortie – involving 14 J-16 fighters, six J-11 fighters, four H-6 bombers and four other planes – took off from an airbase in Fujian province and was the largest aerial incursion recorded by Taiwan.

The 28 warplanes flew into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, crossed the Taiwan Strait and then headed to the eastern side of the island via the Bashi Channel, according to Taiwan’s air force.

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The island, viewed by Beijing as a breakaway province, responded by issuing radio warnings and deploying missile defence systems.

Shu Hsiao-huang, from the Institute for National Defence and Security Research in Taiwan, told Taiwan’s Liberty Times that a possible target was two air force bases in Taitung and Chiashan.

The location of these two key military assets means Taiwan’s central mountain range offers more shelter from mainland attacks and the Chiashan base has an extensive network of underground hangers that offer further protection.

The incursion follows a number of US displays of support for Taiwan, including a visit by three senators who travelled to the island to announce a Covid-19 vaccine donation on a US military transport plane.

Beijing denounced the move as a violation of its sovereignty.

The deployment also followed a couple of US naval missions in recent days, including the USS Ronald Reagan’s transit through the disputed South China Sea and a training exercise with the Japanese navy designed to improve the US military’s ability to operate in tandem with its ally.

Grossman said Beijing is showing its rising frustration at the US-Taiwan relationship, particularly their deepening security ties.

“Beijing is also likely signalling displeasure with Washington’s perceived instigation of the G7 to issue harsh criticisms of Chinese behaviour not only against Taiwan, but in other areas as well,” said Grossman.

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The Group of Seven meeting in Britain concluded with a joint communique that criticised China over a range of issues – from human rights to trade – and Taiwan also featured in US President Joe Biden’s talks with European Union leaders this week.

Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor and Hong Kong-based military commentator, said the incursion was designed to send a signal to the US.

“Faced with a US that treats China as a systemic rival, Beijing has to demonstrate its ability to safeguard its national sovereignty, safety and developmental interests,” said Song.

“And China has to tell the US side that the Taiwan issue is one of China’s core national interests, and China needs an actual deployment to respond to Biden’s accusations.”

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