Risk of incident rising as China encroaches on sea, air around Taiwan

Courtesy of Taiwan Ministry of National Defense
A crew member aboard a Taiwan naval ship monitors a Chinese naval vessel, top right, in the waters off eastern Taiwan in early August last year.

TAIPEI / BEIJING — The Chinese military has been expanding its activities around Taiwan, with the frequent deploying of naval warships and drones in the area raising the risk of an inadvertent incident.

One reported radio exchange between destroyers from the two sides shows the intensity of the situation that can comes close to getting out of hand.

“Your ship is approaching our 24-nautical-mile (about 44-kilometer) contiguous zone,” the Taiwanese destroyer Ma Kong said in the recorded exchange to its Chinese destroyer Xiamen by radio last November off eastern Taiwan. “Change your direction.”

The Xiamen responded by saying, “The 24-nautical-mile line does not exist. Our ship is navigating properly.”

The Taiwanese destroyer warning to the Chinese naval vessel to stay out of its contiguous zone beyond its own territorial waters fell on deaf ears because China regards Taiwan as one of its provinces. It does not acknowledge the existence of such boundaries.

The exchange was recorded by a civilian vessel sailing nearby, and was later leaked on social media.

Taiwanese authorities have acknowledged that the exchange happened. “Our response to the Chinese naval warships is to dispatch our own naval vessels,” the Taiwanese naval command emphasized. “When they appear to be on the verge of entering our contiguous zone, we will drive them away. We will never yield.”

Reinforcing eastern defenses

Movements by Chinese naval vessels have become commonplace since last August, totaling 671 vessels over a total of 149 days between August and December. Since carrying out large-scale military exercises in response to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese vessels have set sail on a daily basis, with some crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

According to sources close to the Taiwanese military, Chinese naval vessels have alternated to maintain a long presence in the waters near the median line in the Taiwan Strait and off northeastern and southwestern Taiwan. By repeatedly brushing along the contiguous zone, it puts the naval vessels of both sides in close proximity almost every day, thus putting them at risk of an accidental collision.

The movements of Chinese naval vessels into the sea off eastern Taiwan impose a new threat on Taiwan. The Chinese ships are appearing frequently in waters between the naval port of Suao in northeastern Taiwan and Yonaguni island of Okinawa Prefecture, which could be to conduct drills meant to disrupt links between Japan and the United States.

According to Taiwanese media, in light of the Chinese navy’s advance into the Pacific, the Taiwanese military recently formed its first mobile missile squadron along Taiwan’s eastern coast. It is said that the Taiwanese plan to further strengthen defenses there by deploying launch vehicles for surface-to-ship missiles with a range of about 150 kilometers.

Adventurous actions

Meanwhile, as many as 70 Chinese drones entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) between August and December last year, with some even crossing the median line. The majority, at 31, were BZK-005 reconnaissance drones, a type first confirmed operating in September 2013 over the East China Sea near Japan.

On Jan. 1, however, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces confirmed the use of the WZ-7 reconnaissance drone for the first time in the airspace around Okinawa, with a total of seven entering the zone. This indicates a steadily expanding range of operations.

Since drones are controlled remotely and pose no danger to the operator, the prevailing view is that they will inevitably be employed for more adventurous actions than manned aircraft.

A diplomatic source in Beijing sound the alarm of the situation, saying, “There is even such a possibility of China someday flying drones over Taiwan itself. If the Taiwanese shoot them down, the Chinese may use it as an excuse to take military action.”