In addition to sending a flurry of spy balloons over Taiwan in the past few months, Beijing on Tuesday last week unilaterally removed previously agreed restrictions on flight paths in the Taiwan Strait, a move that alters the “status quo” of the Strait in another retaliatory action after January’s presidential election. China is trying to create a “new normal” to restrict Taiwan’s sovereignty with less costly, but still coercive tools.
China’s spy balloons have seized the world’s attention, and last year sparked US-China tensions. In that incident, the US Air Force on Feb. 4 last year shot down an observation balloon from China that had traversed the US’ airspace. The Pentagon said it was carrying intelligence-gathering equipment.
In the lead-up to the Jan. 13 elections and continuing since, numerous balloons from China have been detected near and over Taiwan. From Dec. 7 last year to Jan. 16, at least 54 balloons from China have flown over the Taiwan Strait median line and Taiwan’s air defense identification zone near major bases, the Ministry of National Defense has said. The frequency of balloon flights, their proximity to Taiwan and their extended flights suggest they were not scientific weather balloons as Beijing has claimed.
Last week, China added another intimidation tactic, announcing that it had unilaterally altered flight paths in breach of a March 2015 agreement signed by Chinese officials and Taipei. China said that it would no longer require that southbound civilian flights stay 6 nautical miles (11.1km) west of the M503 route, and would also allow eastbound flights on the W122 and W123 flight paths. Those restrictions were in place in the original agreement to avoid emergency situations, and changes were supposed to be confirmed by both sides.
Sending spy balloons over Taiwan and unilaterally altering flight routes in the Taiwan Strait are obviously part of China’s increasingly aggressive attempts to intimidate Taiwan after voters flouted Beijing’s warnings and elected Vice President William Lai (賴清德) as president. The changes, which would put flights around Taiwan’s outlying island at risk due to partially overlapping routes, were deployed to exhaust Taiwan’s military forces, constrain its air defense strategies and intimidate Taiwanese.
While invading Taiwan would be a deadly and costly endeavor for China, which is facing a beleaguered economy, political turmoil and military corruption, Beijing is relying on cognitive warfare and diplomatic measures to intimidate Taiwan and restrict its international presence. The flight path changes, balloon flyovers and military intrusions are in line with China’s “legal warfare,” aiming to blur the Taiwan Strait median line and undermine the legitimacy of Taiwan’s designated air zones.
Lai has expressed goodwill and openness in resuming dialogue with China to resolve differences across the Strait. Nevertheless, Beijing would likely escalate its aggressive behavior before and after Lai’s inauguration as part of its ambition to “unify” with Taiwan. The government, especially the new president and incoming administration, should establish a long-term and multifaceted strategy to confront China’s harassment. That should include guidelines for shooting down China’s intrusive objects once they are determined to be a major threat and to demonstrate Taiwan’s determination for self-defense, as well safeguarding the “status quo” in the Strait. Taiwan should also ramp up efforts to expose China’s attempts to sabotage the international order and norms in the Strait and seek more international support, as China is also sending balloons over other countries and engaging in aggressive actions against its neighbors, particularly in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Taiwan needs to and should do more to confront and fight against China’s coercion.
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