A Taiwanese F-16 fighter aircraft (left) flies alongside a People's Liberation Army Air Force bomber south of Taiwan on May 11, 2018. Photo: Handout / Taiwan Defense Ministry / AFP

The day after the US and Taiwanese coast guards signed a memorandum of understanding on March 25 formally to strengthen their long-standing cooperation, China sent 20 aircraft into the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). In response, Taiwan dispatched fighter aircraft, issued radio warnings, and deployed air defense missile systems to monitor the activity.  

The incursion came the same day Taiwan participated in a high-level World Health Organization (WHO) meeting and was the largest since Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) began publicizing China’s air incursions in mid-September 2020. 

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft consisted of 10 J-16 multirole fighters, two J-10 multirole fighters, four H-6K bombers, two Y-8 marine patrol planes, one KJ-500 early warning and control plane, and one Y-8 tactical reconnaissance plane, according to the MND.   

Since September, between one and 19 PLAAF aircraft of various types have flown almost daily into Taiwan’s ADIZ, mostly into the southwestern corner, according to a compilation by Gerald Brown, a cross-Strait security analyst. For each incursion, Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) dispatches fighter jets, broadcasts radio warnings, and deploys anti-aircraft missile tracking and monitoring systems. 

In 2020, PLAAF aircraft flew a record 380 incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ while also crossing the de facto median line of the Taiwan Strait at levels not seen in 30 years.

Taiwan’s ADIZ is among some two dozen zones set up by countries such as Japan, South Korea and the US to manage air traffic and monitor potentially hostile intrusions. Since ADIZs are not authorized or regulated by international law, China’s sorties through Taiwan’s ADIZ (not its airspace) constitute a form of “gray zone” warfare, to intimidate the Taiwanese without firing a shot and to wear down military and civilian morale. 

The frequency of incursions and the type and number of aircraft dispatched also serve to signal Beijing’s displeasure over any perceived moves toward or display of independence by Taiwan, or any show of support from Washington. 

The Communist Party of China can also message its more nationalistic citizens that it is pushing back against the “separatists” and is actively pursuing “reunification” of the territory the CPC has never controlled. 

Beyond wearing down military and civilian morale, China’s “gray zone” warfare is also taking its toll on Taiwan’s fighter jets, as maintenance and fuel costs escalate. Last year, Taipei scrambled its fighter jets more than 3,000 times to intercept the PLAAF incursions, spending more than US$1 billion on fuel. Of course, China’s PLAAF is also incurring costs, but they are spread over a greater total aircraft strength (3,260) than Taiwan’s (739).

For those more threatening scenarios (as mentioned above) involving multiple and more lethal aircraft, the ROCAF should dispatch the number of fighter jets required to counter the threat. But with costs spiraling, must the ROCAF scramble its fighter jets in response to every PLAAF incursion into Taiwan’s ADIZ? 

No doubt Taipei’s scrambling of jets shows its citizens and Washington the strong resolve of the government to protect the nation and to affirm its sovereignty before China and other nations. But by scrambling its fighter jets for even the lesser threats, the actual threat of invasion has become overstated in many media outlets and among their audiences, which is the exact intention of the psychological warfare undertaken by Beijing toward the Taiwanese.

Most of the PLAAF incursions consist of one to three aircraft, with the submarine-hunting Shaanxi Y-8 ASW, a medium-size, medium-range maritime patrol, and transport aircraft making the most appearances (101). With anti-aircraft missile tracking and monitoring systems activated for each incursion, dispatching fighter jets to meet these less-lethal incursions appears redundant.  

Tokyo reached the same conclusion after many years of encountering similar gray-zone tactics by China’s PLAAF, and this month, it revealed it had been intercepting only those groupings of Chinese aircraft that presented the greatest threat to Japan’s airspace. 

Under the new policy, Japanese interceptions of Chinese planes dropped from a peak of 851 in 2016 to just 331 in the first nine months of fiscal 2020 from April, considerably less than in the same period the previous year.

Some may argue that an incursion by China’s PLAAF that is not met by Taiwan’s ROCAF fighter jets on one day might be seen as a tacit go-ahead to fly deeper into Taiwan’s ADIZ the next day, but squadrons don’t hold territory, and ROCAF fighter jets (or drones) could warn off the PLAAF aircraft at the same coordinates the next day. Ultimately, China’s PLAAF can always choose to “salami-slice” other airspace in Taiwan’s ADIZ.  

Despite the media hype around the March 26 incursion, the threat of invasion is not imminent. Short of an unlikely declaration of de jure independence by Taipei or severe economic depression in China, Beijing is unlikely to risk retaliatory strikes on its soil while ushering in the 100th-anniversary celebration of the CPC, or next year as Beijing hosts the Olympics and Chairman Xi Jinping vies for a third term at the 20th National Party Congress.  

After 2022, the threat will increase as the PLA comes nearer to completing Xi’s goal of modernizing the military by 2035, with some analysts opining the 100th anniversary of its founding, 2027, as the year the PLA will invade Taiwan – a timeline similar to that of Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, who warned the Senate Armed Services Committee last April: “The threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” 

In the near term, however, the untested and logistically challenged PLA is still several years from a fully modernized military. For now, those pesky incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ by small squadrons of one to three PLAAF planes should neither cause Taiwan’s ROCAF to scramble its jets every time in response nor create undue concern among the Taiwanese public.  

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666