The Chinese military flew 38 aircraft into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone on October 1, the most planes that China had ever sent into it. The following day, 39 Chinese warplanes entered, and then Beijing topped that with 56 military planes on October 4. During these flights, nuclear-capable bombers were surrounded by fighter jets, in a typical attack formation. The identification zone is outside Taiwan’s international airspace, but Taiwan’s foreign minister said he was concerned that China was going to launch a war. In the United States, the White House and the State Department urged the People’s Republic to end its pressure on Taiwan, calling the flights “destabilizing.” China blamed the U.S. for endangering regional peace by selling arms to Taipei and regularly sailing warships through the Taiwan Strait. What’s going on?

Bonnie Glaser is the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She’s worked on U.S.-China relations for decades, including as part of a China panel at the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration. As Glaser sees it, China isn’t going to attack Taiwan imminently. Chinese President Xi Jinping is using the flights partly to please his military and the Chinese people. Beijing often conducts these sorties to send signals abroad, Glaser says, so these flights might also show ongoing displeasure with U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies. Biden has made Taiwan’s independence a more prominent part of U.S. foreign policy by bringing in allies to confirm Washington’s support for the island. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region have a lot at stake in the dynamic between China and Taiwan, in Glaser’s view—seeing Taiwan as a barometer of both China’s aggressiveness in the region and the United States’ reliability as a protector.

Michael Bluhm: What are we seeing in these Chinese military flights near Taiwan?

Bonnie Glaser: There are only a few dozen countries in the world that have air-defense identification zones (ADIZ). This isn’t territorial airspace. These flights by China have never flown into Taiwan’s territorial airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from the coastline of Taiwan. They’ve never overflown Taiwan proper.

We’ve seen these spurts before, with very large numbers of aircraft flying into this air-defense identification zone. The pilots are training, and Xi Jinping has been emphasizing the need for the Chinese military to train.

Sometimes when China sends aircraft into this zone, they’re sending a signal that they don’t like something Taiwan or the United States did. For instance, during the Trump administration, when an undersecretary of state visited Taiwan, China responded by sending in a lot of aircraft, arguing that the visit violated the U.S. one China policy.

We’ve by now seen many incursions by Chinese aircraft into this ADIZ. They’re not all intended for signaling. Sometimes they’re to stress Taiwan’s air force—to put their pilots on edge, to force them to do more maintenance, or to unnerve the military and Taiwanese society as a whole. But ultimately, I don’t think these are a prelude to war.

Bluhm: So, why send record numbers of flights now?

Glaser: They started on China’s national day. They could well have been planned as a demonstration of the People’s Liberation Army’s determination to defend territorial integrity and Chinese sovereignty. That plays well with the military; it plays well at home; it stokes nationalism. Which serves Xi Jinping’s purpose.

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in