Taiwan's defence ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft

People look at a Chinese H6 bomber and other aircraft at the Military Museum in Beijing on March 3, 2024. - PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP): A surge of Chinese military aircraft was detected around Taiwan during a three-hour window on Saturday, Taipei's defence ministry said, a month before the self-ruled island's May 20 inauguration of incoming president Lai Ching-te.

China claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory, and has said it will never renounce the use of force to bring the island under its control.

Tensions between both sides of the narrow 180-kilometre (110-mile) Taiwan Strait have ramped up since January when Vice President Lai -- regarded as a "dangerous separatist" by Beijing -- was elected as the island's incoming leader.

Experts also said military drills between the United States and the Philippines which kick off Monday near the potential flashpoint of the South China Sea -- which Beijing claims in its entirety -- could have sparked the show of force around Taiwan.

Taipei's defence ministry said since 8:15 am (0015 GMT) it had detected 21 Chinese aircraft around Taiwan, including J-16 fighter jets, Y-8 medium-range transport planes, and drones.

"17 aircraft (of the 21) crossed the median line and its extension, entered our northern, central, and southwestern (air defence identification zone), and joined PLA vessels for joint combat patrol," it said in a statement posted on X around 11:30 am.

Taiwan's armed forces "are monitoring the activities with our joint surveillance systems".

Beijing, which does not recognise the median line bisecting the Taiwan Strait, sends warplanes and naval vessels around Taiwan on a near-daily basis.

Experts say it is a form of "grey-zone harassment", stopping short of an outright act of war but enough to exhaust Taipei's armed forces.

The record number occurred in September when Beijing's military sent 103 aircraft -- 40 of which crossed the median line -- in a 24-hour period.

Under the two-term administrations of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, tensions between Beijing and Taipei have ramped up, as she and her government do not acknowledge China's claim.

Her deputy Lai -- who used to be more outspoken about Taiwan independence but has moderated his views in recent years -- will come into power on May 20.

Before the elections, Beijing warned he would be the cause of "war and decline" for Taiwan.

- 'Grand chessboard' -

Saturday's show of force comes a day after China activated two aviation routes that run close to Taiwan's outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu -- which Taipei condemned as "unilateral measures" that would increase flight safety risks.

China's aviation authority also said Friday the airspace around Fuzhou Changle Airport -- 30 kilometres from the closest outlying Taiwanese island -- would be "further optimised and adjusted" on May 16, four days before the inauguration.

Political analyst Wen-ti Sung told AFP China "may be trying to show teeth to back up" the expansion of the new flight path.

But he added that "China is playing on a grand chessboard", and the ramp-up in warplane activity could be about the South China Sea issue.

On Monday, the United States and the Philippines will begin joint maritime exercises which will be held beyond Philippine territorial waters for the first time, "edging ever closer towards Taiwan Strait", said Sung.

The exercises will simulate retaking enemy-occupied islands in areas facing Taiwan and the South China Sea.

"By amping up military theatre near Taiwan, Beijing may seek to deter and dissuade further internationalisation of the Taiwan issue in the security realm," he added.

Conflict expert Ou Sifu of Taiwan's Institute of National Defense and Security Research agreed that Saturday's activities were to send Beijing's message beyond Taiwan.

This "political warfare will continue until May 20 and beyond," he told AFP.

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