On Feb. 5, a Chinese Harbin Y-12 light civilian aircraft flew near the airspace of Lienchiang County’s Dongyin Island (東引), a small militarized island in the Matsu archipelago. A Ministry of National Defense spokesperson told a news conference that the plane had not entered Taiwan’s airspace, although an initial analysis suggested that it is too early to rule out that the aircraft was being used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to test the island’s emergency response measures.
Opinions vary as to whether the plane’s abnormal flight path during the Lunar New Year holiday was a one-off incident or indicative of a “new normal.” Members of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, along with retired generals, have said that the military must not brush off the flyby, and must respond appropriately.
Given the accuracy of modern global positioning systems, the likelihood that the aircraft had simply strayed off course is remote. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for legislators and retired generals to demand that the military formulate contingency plans in the event that the PLA is using civilian aircraft to probe Taiwan’s airspace as a new “gray zone” tactic.
As China seeks to expand beyond its borders, gray zone activities and hybrid warfare tactics have become a common threat faced by nations in the region, creating a new national security challenge.
These forms of non-traditional, non-conventional tactics, which fall below the threshold of kinetic warfare, are intended to make it difficult for a targeted nation to determine whether it should respond militarily. The confusion caused by such tactics is designed to create hesitation and delay decisionmaking, allowing China to gradually achieve a quantitative and qualitative advantage almost by stealth.
Examples of this phenomenon include China’s deployment of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia in the South China Sea, civilian vessels in waters near the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — and PLA aircraft into Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ). China has gradually stepped up the frequency and scope of these maritime and airborne gray zone operations with the goal of achieving a fait accompli.
The civilian aircraft incident earlier this month has attracted a great deal of attention in Taiwan. The airspace above Dongyin is restricted. Civilian aircraft and drones must obtain permission to fly through the area. One military expert warned that if it is not a one-off incident, then it indicates that China’s gray zone tactics are headed in a worrying new direction.
Unfortunately, the government’s response to China’s latest provocation lacks clarity. On the day of the incident, Dongyin residents heard the loud sound of an aircraft flying extremely low, implying that the aircraft had entered its airspace and might have been attempting to avoid radar detection.
Residents reportedly said they thought the unidentified aircraft might be either a PLA transport plane or one of China’s uncrewed aerial platforms.
However, it took until the evening of the following day for Dongyin’s army headquarters to issue a public statement, which simply said that it had confirmed that a civilian twin engine turboprop plane had briefly entered Dongyin’s ADIZ. The statement did not mention the aircraft’s nationality, but indirectly denied reports that it was a PLA plane. On the evening of Feb. 7, a Democratic Progressive Party legislator said on a television political talk show that the plane was a Chinese Y-12 civilian light transport aircraft.
Legislators have previously recommended that the ministry provide clarity by confirming which areas near outlying islands are restricted airspace, and immediately report any incursions into the nation’s ADIZ or airspace on the day that they occur.
This would help to improve the public’s understanding of the issues involved, provide reassurance and send a clear message that the military is in control and able to adapt to fast-changing situations. It would also help Taiwan regain the initiative, while having the added benefit of nipping fake news and misinformation in the bud.
For Dongyin residents, the appearance of a Chinese civilian aircraft was a clear security threat, yet extracting a response from the military has been like pulling teeth, with complete radio silence for 24 hours after the incident occurred.
There has been no public response from the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority, and Taipei has not lodged an official protest with Beijing.
Perhaps even more serious were the rumors that were spreading. One says that a military officer on duty during the flyby had assumed that a flickering dot on their radar screen was signal interference and erroneously removed it from the system. This meant that the local military garrison failed to move to a state of combat readiness, while intelligence reports were thought to be mistaken and ignored, according to the rumors.
It was not until 10 days later that the ministry issued a formal explanation, in which officials denied that operator error had led to a mistaken deletion of tracking data, and said that the aircraft “did not enter an important area” or Dongyin’s airspace.
Although the ministry said the incident involved a civilian aircraft, given that the Chinese government officially fuses military and civil units, it is conceivable that the aircraft was operated by, or was carrying detection equipment installed by, the PLA.
Moreover, the PLA has in the past few years begun to use large civilian ships to transport aircraft, soldiers, weapons, armor and other equipment for military exercises designed to simulate an attack on Taiwan. Military analysts have said that the PLA has already formulated plans to use civilian ships in an amphibious assault of Taiwan.
The PLA’s use of civilian aircraft as part of its gray zone operations against Taiwan would fit its modus operandi of blending civilian and military assets.
A retired general said that the military should defend Dongyin in the same way that it defends Kinmen County’s Wuciou Islands (烏坵), the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and other islands near China.
The general said that if Beijing makes a habit of employing civilian aircraft, drones and perhaps even paragliders to buzz the airspace of outlying islands to test Taiwan’s response, the military’s entire contingency response strategy, as well as its aircraft identification procedures, would have to be revised and improved.
The ministry should also make public as much information about each incursion within the bounds of operational security, to let Beijing know that it can thwart such “fishing expeditions,” and thereby deter any further attempts by the PLA to “salami slice” the nation’s sovereignty.
Taiwan should expect China to increase the frequency of its provocative operations and hybrid warfare tactics.
The Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research cited a US think tank report recommending that the US adopt a “whole-of-government” approach to integrate and leverage the strengths of all government agencies in countering Russian and Chinese gray zone operations. The report said that the US should publicize hybrid warfare operations by hostile states, respond quickly with precise information and counternarratives, and disclose any illegal behavior or actions.
While the ministry’s publishing of flight paths and aircraft types whenever Chinese aircraft enter Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ is a timely response, its handling of the civilian aircraft incident over Dongyin was passive and slow.
Chinese hybrid warfare is not limited to military coercion, but also includes economic and information warfare. As such, Taiwan must leverage multiple agencies and departments, rather than simply relying on the military, to counter Beijing’s hybrid warfare threat. If Taiwan’s response to a Chinese gray zone attack is slow, or if the military or a government agency is caught off guard, from Beijing’s perspective it would have uncovered a fresh attack vector for it to exploit.
Taiwan must adopt a whole-of-government approach in dealing with China’s provocations and implement a high level of defense. Any loopholes, as exposed by the Dongyin incident, would be mercilessly exploited by China.
Translated by Edward Jones
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