The Ministry of National Defense on Sunday last week reported that 19 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft entered Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The government has raised concerns that such incursions have been on the rise over the past year.
Taiwan’s ADIZ covers territory under the administration of China, but Beijing does not recognize Taiwan’s right to it — nor are such areas bound by any international convention or recognized by any international body. Taiwan’s zone was created by the US military after World War II to defend the nation.
China’s incursions do not occur in the nation’s territorial airspace — usually defined as 12 nautical miles (22.2km) from a nation’s coastline — and they have not come near the Taipei Flight Information Region. The ministry wrote on Twitter that the incursions on Sunday last week were in the southwest portion of the ADIZ, far from Taiwan proper and a significant distance from the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島).
That does not mean the incursions are harmless. They crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, and their flight paths had no strategic purpose other than intimidation, but did they present an immediate threat to national security? Arguably, Taiwan is compelled to respond or risk the PLA pushing further into its airspace. However, responding to every incursion puts a toll on the military, which is to China’s benefit. Each response also gives China more opportunity to study Taiwan’s defense strategy.
Announcing such incursions is helpful to draw more international attention to the issue, and increase global support for Taiwan, but lodging protests with China will not stop them. China does not recognize Taiwan’s ADIZ, just as the rest of the world does not recognize China’s claims over much of the South China Sea. Therefore, declaration of any such zone must be paired with concrete defense measures, just as China has started militarizing atolls in the South China Sea, claiming it is doing so to defend “Chinese territory.”
If the ministry is serious about defending the zone, it must develop autonomous defense systems that take some of the burden off military personnel. The most obvious solution would be autonomous underwater vehicles such as the US’ LDUUV INP and China’s HSU-001, and uncrewed aerial vehicles such as the US’ RQ-170 and China’s TB-001.
A Forbes article by David Axe on Wednesday last week said that Chinese drones were spotted near US and allied aircraft carriers in waters off Okinawa. “The greater risk is that, during wartime, Chinese drones might succeed in pinpointing allied carriers,” Axe wrote. In another article by Axe on Tuesday, he wrote that the “US Air Force’s secret RQ-180 stealth spy drone has been photographed flying over the Philippines,” backing up a report that the drone “is flying from Guam for operations around China.”
A large part of recent military activity in the Asia-Pacific region seems focused on Taiwan’s defense and the greater implications that it has for regional peace and stability. For that reason, Taiwan must keep pace with developments in defense technology, including uncrewed vehicles. Deploying drones in response to PLA incursions would be safer and more cost-effective. They could also be deployed at random within the ADIZ and fly random routes, introducing risk for PLA aircraft. If the PLA were to shoot down drones within Taiwan’s airspace, that would be perceived by the international community as a unilateral act of aggression — and possibly an act of war.
The ministry could also explore the use of high-powered lasers as a defense measure, to be deployed on the Pratas and in Penghu and Kinmen counties.
China’s incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ are increasing, and the nation needs autonomous defense systems that can act as a deterrent and a response.
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