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China’s Jets that Crossed into Taiwan Airspace: Not a First; Maybe not the Last

A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island in this U.S. Department of Defense handout photo taken Aug. 19, 2014.
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island in this U.S. Department of Defense handout photo taken Aug. 19, 2014.

Two Chinese fighter planes that crossed into the airspace of political rival Taiwan this week extended a series of breaches over the past two decades and herald more, further straining already tense relations, defense analysts say.

The two J-11 planes crossed 43 nautical miles over a median line south of the Taiwan Strait Sunday morning until the Taiwanese air force pressured them to leave, the Ministry of National Defense in Taipei said. The incident quickly touched off a round of venting by Taiwanese government officials against China and sparked a rebuke against Beijing in Washington.

Although the planes stayed in Taiwan’s airspace for 12 minutes, longer than usual, they have crossed the median line before at least since 1999, defense experts believe. Some cases are accidental and the Chinese aircraft leave without incident.

Now analysts expect to see more planes on Taiwan’s side of the line as pressure on Taiwan. China/Taiwan relations have soured since 2016, pushing Taiwan closer to its powerful, informal ally the United States and angering Beijing further.

“If there’s once, there’s a second time and if a second time there’s a third. So I hope the Taiwan government, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, can be very resolute and determined,” said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies in Taiwan.

Median line

A U.S. military official established the median line in 1955 in the ocean strait between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan and both sides normally honor it even during the coolest of political relations. After a series of air battles in the strait, in 1958 China and Taiwan reached a “tacit agreement” to observe the line, Taiwan’s government-run Taiwan Today news website says.

China’s keeping to its side of the line assures the militarily weaker Taiwan that the People’s Liberation Army air force isn’t about to attack the democratically ruled island that’s just 160 kilometers across at its narrowest point.

Beijing’s Communist leadership has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and threatened to take it by force if needed. After President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taipei almost three years ago, Beijing dropped dialogue with Taiwan because Tsai does not see both sides as part of a single China.

Crossovers logged since 1999

Chinese planes crossed the line in 1999 after ex-president Lee Teng-hui enraged China by suggesting “special state-to-state relations,” according to local media reports. The comment went against Beijing’s pursuit of unification.

Since 1999, Chinese jets have “occasionally tried to penetrate” the line to gauge Taiwan’s response, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the think tank Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan.

Some aircraft cross the median line by accident, especially during harsh weather, Michael Tsai said. He cited one case that caused concern in 2001, when Taiwan’s anti-China ex-president Chen Shui-bian was starting his first term in office. Normally the two sides communicate “internationally” if a plane is about to cross, he said.

“It happened before but the Sunday incident, because they stayed there for over 10 minutes, that’s really unusual,” Yang said.

State-run media in China said Monday the median line crossover was a caution to the United States. The U.S. government, China’s former Cold War foe and a staunch informal backer of Taiwan, regularly passes naval ships through the Taiwan Strait.

More crossovers expected

Analysts and some in government caution of more flights over the median line as long as China is trying to pressure Taiwan into political unification. Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated that call on January 2 in a speech in Beijing.

“What I expect is they will do even more in the future and try to exhaust our air force,” Yang said. Taiwan’s air force will not be exhausted but must “keep a very close eye” on their Chinese counterparts, he said.

Chen Ming-tong, minister of the government’s Mainland Affairs Council, linked the Sunday incident to the Chinese President’s broader push for unification. The Council said in January more than 80 percent of Taiwanese oppose unification.

“He has his own political agenda. He’s going to push it forward step by step,” Chen told reporters on Monday. “He’s got his own design. No matter who’s in charge in Taiwan in the future, he’s got the resolve to unify with Taiwan. I don’t rule out that (provocations) will become a standing thing. It’s of course attracting international attention and they’ll think he’s altering the status quo. They will think he’s a provoker.”