Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Concern after China breaches Taiwan airspace

Tensions between China and Taiwan went up a notch this month after it was revealed Chinese fighter jets breached Taiwan's airspace while pursuing a US reconnaissance aircraft. China has called the United States' operations dangerous and that China's action was legitimate. Meanwhile the US has insisted it is not deterred and will continue its reconnaissance flights. Taiwan for its part has been more diplomatic referring to China's straying into Taiwanese airspace as "an accident". But the incident will likely worry military officials on all sides in what could be seen as China's growing assertiveness in the region.


The incursion is said to have taken place on 29th of June when two Chinese Su-27 fighter jets followed a US U-2 reconnaissance plane into Taiwan's airspace. It is not clear whether the US spy plane had itself flown into airspace claimed by the Chinese. Taiwan scrambled two F-16 fighters to intercept the Chinese Sukhoi-27 jets near the central line across the 180 km wide Strait though they did not engage the aircraft.

Reports of the incident emerged on Monday, published in the Taiwan paper the United Daily News. Initially military officials on all sides declined to comment. Luo Shou-he, a spokesman for the Taiwanese Defence refused to comment, but later a statement released to the media said the incident was "an accident" and that Taiwan had been "in full control" of the situation.

The Pentagon and China's Defense Ministry also refused to respond to continued media requests for information, but by late Monday afternoon there was a breaking of the silence.

Asked about a June 29th incident Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military official, said, "We won't be deterred from flying in international airspace. The Chinese would see us move out of there. We're not going to do that, from my perspective. These reconnaissance flights are important."

But he issued a note of caution, adding, "We both have to be very careful about how we fly them. We have to be careful about the intercepts."

China has not directly acknowledged the incident took place, but has reacted to the admirals remarks and newspaper reports. An opinion based article in the China Daily called the US operations "dangerous war games" and said that China's response was "legitimate." Meanwhile a Chinese defence source is quoted as saying, "This once again shows that US military activity very close to our territory is a destabilising factor in the region."

Taiwan insists the incursion was not a "deliberate provocation" however it appears clear, given two F-16s were launched in response, that a threat was perceived [Reports: FT / WSJ / Bloomberg / Telegraph / Daily Mail / China Daily]  .

Tense since 1949

Such incidents could escalate very quickly. Taiwan has been a flashpoint in US-China relations since 1949, when the defeated Nationalist Chinese government fled to the island after the Communist victory on the mainland. China claims Taiwan to be part of its territory and has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island nation, which it threatens to invade if it declares formal independence.

For its part the US has continued to arm Taiwan and is obliged under the Taiwan Relations Act signed in 1979 to help defend it if attacked. Over the years the United States has supplied Taiwan with weapons and jet fighters and a decision is expected soon over whether it will sell 66 new F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan.

China and Taiwan have continued to observe a so-called middle line, drawn by the US when it signed a mutual defence treaty with the island in 1954. The line functions as a buffer zone between China and Taiwan, which still regard each other as enemies.

Chinese military aircraft have not crossed the middle line since July 1999, a time when tensions were high. That summer the People's Liberation Army Airforce, which had rarely patrolled the area previously, flew hundreds of sorties over the Taiwan Strait.

Hainan island incident

China has persistently objected to reconnaissance patrols of its coastline, especially since a PLA jet fighter collided with a US spy plane in April 2001 near Hainan island. The PLA pilot died and Chinese authorities detained the US crew for 11 days in a tense stand-off [BBC / CNN / Guardian / Congress Report Oct 2001 (PDF) / MAReport / Wikipedia: Hainan Island incident]

Mike Mullen said it was important that such incidents do not happen again. "These are lives that are at stake up there, in addition to creating an incident ... that escalates the tension over there and could put countries in a position to miscalculate."

Even at the time of the 2001 incident there were questions as to how it had escalated so quickly. The suggested that the incident was more likely the actions of an overzealous Chinese pilot rather than commands from Beijing. "If this affair is the result of an accident -- a Chinese cowboy-pilot crossing a line of prudence, and losing his life -- then the episode can be quickly tidied up," the paper asserted. "If the affair is the result of a Chinese military decision not sanctioned by Beijing's civilians, that is disquieting evidence of command-and-control problems as China approaches a leadership transition."

China is heading for another leadership transition in 2012 with Xi Jinping being touted as the country's next president. There is also the coincidence that just as the US is about to consider a massive arms deal with Taiwan, a similar decision was pending in 2001. Taiwan relies primarily on the US for military support but it has a limited fighting capability. Taiwan's request for new F-16 C/D fighters has been pending since 2006, and upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 A/Bs, which the US sold it in 1992, have been on hold since 2009, according to a Congressional Research Service report released in February.

Military build-up

China is also building up its military. Recently the People's Liberation Army Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff, disclosed that China was developing a new aircraft carrier-killing anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D.

According to reports from the US Office of Naval Intelligence, China's DF-21D ballistic missile will enter service soon, though no exact time scale has been stated. If the aiming system can be proved to be accurate, the DF-21D ballistic missile will become the first land-based maneuverable Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile, which is able to hit moving aircraft carriers with a range of up to 3,000 km.

Some reports suggest the missile system may already be live which will no doubt increase concerns in US military circles [StrategyPage]. The US in particular has been keeping a close eye on China's rapidly growing military [Annual Report to Congress 2010 - PDF].While the US acknowledges "the PLA has made modest improvements in the transparency of China's military and security affairs" it states in its 2010 report that there are "many uncertainties remain regarding how China will use its expanding military capabilities." The 2007 report was also particularly focused on Taiwan [Annual Report to Congress 2007 - PDF]. In fact in its summary the report suggests, "China's near-term focus on preparing for military contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, including the possibility of US intervention, appears to be an important driver of its modernization plans. However, analysis of China's military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also generating capabilities for other regional contingencies, such as con´Čéict over resources or territory."

As for China's next president in waiting there are concerns too. Xi already has the reputation of being a hardliner. During a visit to Mexico in 2009 he lashed out at foreign nations for their continued criticism of China. After proudly claiming that China had already made its contribution to the financial crisis by making sure its own 1.3 billion people were fed, he said that "there are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country".

"China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?" While nationalist bloggers in China quickly picked up on Xi's remarks, his speech was deemed too inflammatory by censors inside China, and was instantly deleted from websites and news reports. Even bloggers later found their posts deleted [Telegraph].

Other disputes

The breach into Taiwanese airspace may have been a glitch but it comes after a serious of spats between China and other countries in the region with which it has border and territorial disputes. Following a tense stand-off between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands [tvnewswatch]. Another issue boiled over with Vietnam after Chinese fishing trawlers strayed into waters claimed by Vietnam. China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Chinese fishing boats were chased away by armed Vietnamese ships. In another incident a Vietnamese ship carrying out oil exploration is said to have dragged a Chinese vessel for more than an hour after its fishing nets became entangled in cables. Both sides have accused the other of invading each other's territorial waters [BBC / CNN / NYT].

As China strengthens, both militarily and economically, there are increasing fears that it will further assert its territorial claims. Whether it makes bold statements, breathes hot air or acts in a far more aggressive fashion is, as yet, unclear. But in the past few years China has become more emboldened.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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