While tensions remain high and a military build-up continues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, China has ratcheted up tensions on its eastern front, with 18 Chinese fighters and bombers crossing the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait and flying towards Taiwan in a major show of military force.
The combat drills on Friday were aimed to coincide with the visit to Taiwan of U.S. Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the most senior official to visit the island in four decades.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command said in a statement on Friday that “combat-ready patrols and joint air-sea exercises in the Taiwan Straits” were held “to test the joint operations capability of multiservices”.
“The relevant moves are necessary measures to deal with the current situation across the Taiwan Strait and will help enhance the capability of troops under the PLA Eastern Theater Command to safeguard the national unity, territorial sovereignty and security,” said PLA Air Force Senior Colonel Zhang Chunhui, spokesperson for the Eastern Theater Command, adding that the PLA would “thwart any attempt by any person or force to carry out ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities in any form.”
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said 18 PLA aircraft had crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait and entered its Air Defence Identification Zone. These included two H-6 bombers, eight J-16 fighters, four J-10 fighters and four J-11 fighters. The Ministry said the Taiwan air force had scrambled fighters in response to intrusions.
The Taiwan moves underline China’s military is now “muscle-flexing” on multiple fronts, said Lt. Gen. Vijay Oberoi (retd), former Vice Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army. “If India is dealing with a two-front situation, China is now dealing with four or five fronts,” he said. “From Ladakh to the South China Sea issue, East China Sea with Japan, and Taiwan. There is also another western front, if you look at their internal problems in Xinjiang.”
In Beijing, the Defence Ministry spokesperson and PLA Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang blamed the U.S. for the tensions, and accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) “of stepping up collusion with the U.S.,” Reuters reported. “Trying to use Taiwan to control China or rely on foreigners to build oneself up was wishful thinking and futile,” he said. “Those who play with fire will get burnt.”
‘Preparation for attack’
The news agency quoted Hu Xijin, the editor of the hawkish Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, as saying “the drills were preparation for an attack on Taiwan should the need arise, and that they enabled intelligence-gathering about Taiwan’s defence systems.” “If the U.S. Secretary of State or Defence Secretary visits Taiwan, People’s Liberation Army fighters should fly over Taiwan island, and directly exercise in the skies above it,” he said.
Some Chinese analysts have also situated the LAC tensions with India within the broader framework of China’s worsening relations with America. On Friday, Yan Xuetong, a leading strategic expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said at a webinar organised by the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi that “in China, most people believe [India’s] current government did a major adjustment of traditional Indian foreign policy, and the non-alignment principle has already been given up and abandoned.” “India has a strong motivation to become an ally of the U.S.,” he said. “From Chinese eyes, we think currently non-alignment principle is just a cover or policy to making alliances for India.”
Those moves, however, may only be reinforcing closer India-U.S. ties, said Joshua Eisenman, senior fellow for China Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “It is India that is on the frontline, on the razor’s edge, and if it wants a strong coalition to deal with China, it will have to sign on to the Quad big time,” he said at a recent discussion held by the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, referring to the India-U.S.-Japan-Australia grouping.
“This is the moment where, from Canberra and Tokyo to Delhi and Washington, whether we like it or not, we have to do it,” he said, referring to scaling up the grouping, including beyond military cooperation.