The Taiwanese Air Force scrambled fighters again on Sunday after more than two dozen Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft—including five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, eight J-16 strike fighters, and six J-10 multirole fighters—entered its air defense identification zone (ADIZ). For the first time, the Chinese forces included a Y-20U aerial refueling aircraft. The Y-20U’s debut suggests the PLAAF is making progress in aerial refueling technology, which can drastically increase the range of Chinese fighters, bombers, and transport planes in the context of a Taiwan invasion scenario. “The PLAAF is expanding its inventory of refuelable fighters, developing refuelable variants of the H-6 bomber and KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft, and testing a tanker variant of its Y-20 heavy lift transport,” according to a recent Defense Department report on Chinese military capabilities. “Together, these new aircraft will noticeably expand China’s ability to conduct long-range offensive air operations.”
Asked about the incursion, Taipei officials have expressed their resolve to resist what they describe as Beijing’s relentless effort to apply military pressure on Taiwan. “Their intention is to slowly exhaust, to let you know that we have this power,” said Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng during a parliamentary briefing. “Our national forces have shown that, while you may have this power, we have countermeasures.” This latest incident comes on the heels of the largest-ever PLAAF incursion into Taiwan’s ADIZ, with a record 149 Chinese military aircraft spotted near the island from October 1-4. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry warned earlier this month that the PLA’s modernization programs pose a “grave threat” to Taiwan’s national security, adding that China has the capability to stage a coordinated military blockade against the island’s key “harbors, airports, and flight routes.”
The recent spike in Chinese military maneuvers vis-à-vis Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a breakaway province of the People’s Republic of China, was accompanied by increasingly belligerent government rhetoric. “We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements—those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war,” said Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian. I-wei Jennifer Chang, a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, previously told the National Interest that Beijing’s mounting internal problems—including electricity shortages and a new wave of coronavirus infections—could help spur Chinese military action against Taiwan.
Washington has taken steps, met with vigorous protest from Beijing, to reassure Taipei. A bipartisan delegation of five U.S. lawmakers arrived in Taipei last week to meet with Taiwanese officials. The trip prompted immediate backlash from Beijing, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin demanding the United States “immediately stop any form of official interaction with Taiwan.” It was revealed that same week that the Biden administration has invited Taiwan to participate in Washington’s upcoming “Summit for Democracy”, a move also sparking immediate condemnation from Chinese officials.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.