China sent a record number of military aircraft to menace self-ruled Taiwan in a large show of force to the Biden administration, signaling that Beijing wants to maintain pressure on Taiwan even as some tensions between the superpowers are easing.
The swarm of Chinese fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and drones that buzzed the airspace near Taiwan in the 24-hour period leading to Monday morning demonstrated Beijing’s appetite for confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, the island democracy China claims as its territory.
The military activity — which, according to Taiwan, included at least 71 Chinese aircraft — came days after President Biden’s latest move to expand American support for the island. Beijing has denounced the United States’ effort as an attempt to contain China and interfere in its domestic affairs.
Tensions over Taiwan have been rising in the months since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August, prompting Beijing to step up its activity in the area with several days of live-fire drills. China said that the exercise was aimed at honing its ability to conduct joint patrols and military strikes, but also made clear what the target was.
“This was a firm response to the current escalation of collusion and provocations by the U.S. and Taiwan,” Senior Colonel Shi Yi, a spokesman for the Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army, which faces Taiwan, said in a statement issued Sunday.
The military policy bill that President Biden signed into legislation on Friday lays out lawmakers’ national security priorities for the coming year. This year, U.S. lawmakers, eyeing the protracted war in Europe and rising tensions with China, approved funding for Ukraine and authorized up to $10 billion over the next five years for Taiwan.
“Such a large-scale action is, of course, a response to President Biden’s signing of the act,” said Su Tzu-yun, a security analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. “This pattern will likely continue.”
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“The United States has walked from strategic ambiguity to constructive clarity,” said Mr. Su, referring to the latest military legislation. “Biden has turned Taiwan into a quasi-partner that fits the role of a security partner in his Indo-Pacific strategy.”
For years, China has sent naval and air forces into the southwest corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone as a way to test and wear down the island’s resolve against a possible military offensive. The air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, is larger than the sovereign airspace claimed by Taiwan, and serves as a unilaterally declared area in which the island’s authorities claim special rights to tell aircraft to identify themselves.
China’s military flights around Taiwan have increased following Ms. Pelosi’s visit, a trip that reinforced suspicion in Beijing that the United States has loosened its commitment to a “one China” policy. Under that policy, Washington acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China. Washington also says that settling Taiwan’s status must be done peacefully, and a 1979 law asserts that the United States may intervene if Taiwan is attacked. Chinese officials and experts say that successive American presidents have tilted toward Taiwan, while American officials say that Beijing has destabilized cross-strait relations through bellicose acts and rhetoric.
The latest military exercise was notable for breaking a single-day record, both in total number of aircraft deployed as well as the number that crossed the so-called median line, an informal boundary between the two sides. Forty-seven out of the 71 aircraft crossed that line, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry. Passing over the line is seen as more provocative, because the aircraft would be on a straight course over Taiwan if they did not veer away.
In a statement on Monday, the defense ministry said that the Taiwanese military was monitoring the situation and tasked its combat air patrol, Navy vessels and land-based missile systems to respond.
“What the Chinese Communist Party has been doing has once again highlighted its mentality of using force to resolve differences and undermine regional peace and stability,” the Taiwanese defense ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator in Beijing who is a former Chinese military officer, said in an interview that the new U.S. defense legislation amounted to a test of China’s boundaries. “The People’s Liberation Army would use severe military drills to warn the United States that if it insists on going its own way, there will be no peace in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Taiwan has recently pushed to strengthen its own military, fueled by concerns over undertrained staff as well as newfound urgency following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Tsai Ing-wen will hold a news conference on Tuesday, according to the Taiwanese presidential office. She is expected to outline a plan to extend the period of military conscription from four months to a year.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has in recent months tried to stabilize relations with the United States and other Western governments, which deteriorated for years over human rights issues, technology and trade tensions, as well as deepening distrust over Taiwan. But when Mr. Xi and President Biden held a face-to-face summit in Bali in November, Mr. Xi also emphasized that Taiwan’s future and American support for the island remain a potential fuse of crisis, even conflict.
“President Xi stressed that the Taiwan question is ‘the core of the core interests of China,’ the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the red line that the United States must not and should not cross,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said at the time.
Mr. Xi, like previous Communist Party leaders, has said he wants to peacefully bring Taiwan under Chinese rule but will not rule out the use of force. Many experts say the balance of armed strength across the Taiwan Strait has been shifting in China’s favor, and some believe that Mr. Xi could intensify military pressure on Taiwan in coming years.
But the Pentagon’s latest annual report about the Chinese armed forces, released last month, said that attempting to seize control of Taiwan remained a daunting, and potentially devastating, gamble for Mr. Xi.
“Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations,” the report stated. The potential setbacks and a likely wave of international opprobrium, it added, would make an invasion a “significant political and military risk for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, even assuming a successful landing and breakout.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting.