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Taiwan Is Really Mad At Chinese Fighter Jets

April 2, 2019

A PLAAF J-11B. Via China Military Online.

The prickly island nation went on a diplomatic offensive this week after two PLAAF fighters, identified as J-11’s by the defense ministry, breached the “median line” in the Taiwan Strait. Rather than let it pass, the incident was condemned by Taipei and its allies Japan and the US. The two J-11’s were reportedly tailed by unspecified Taiwanese fighters until they left the area on Sunday morning. Since then, no Chinese military activity has taken place. While the PLAAF makes a routine of poking around Taiwan’s airspace, the sudden backlash after this weekend’s tense encounter is a clear sign of Taipei’s defiance.

The PLAAF J-11’s reported to have crossed the “median line” are likely J-11B’s. These are copies of Russian twin engine Su-27 multirole fighters and are China’s most potent fourth-generation combat aircraft. The number of operational J-11B’s in the PLAAF are estimated between 329 and several hundred. The J-11B is different from the J-15 carrier-based fighter, the Su-30MK, and the Su-35 also flown by the PLAAF; all are variants sharing a common airframe. The ROC Air Force interceptors that tailed the J-11B’s are unknown but Taiwan does have a large fleet of twin engine F-CK-1 Ching-kuos. This year, the defense ministry announced its plans to order 66 F-16V’s from the US for strengthening its capabilities.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have deteriorated in the past few years as President Tsai Ing-wen refused paying lip service to the idea of “one country, two systems” and sought stronger ties with China’s rivals. The fallout of this weekend tiff drew stern criticism from President Tsai and her office, as well as statements on social media by the likes of National Security Adviser John Bolton. In a tweet featuring an image of F-CK-1 fighters, Tsai promised to “resolutely protect Taiwan’s security and sovereignty.”

“As China continues to challenge regional security, I want to remind the Beijing authorities; do not deliberately provoke; do not instigate trouble, and do not challenge the cross-strait status quo,” she wrote. The wording of this single tweet is severe by regional standards, where most countries wouldn’t dare remind China that it risks of war if it carries on with its belligerence. The foreign ministry echoed Tsai’s sentiments with another tweet that hailed John Bolton’s life mantra, “Surrender is not an option.”

But Taiwan’s patience for PLAAF flights and their transgressions is generous in hindsight. The Chinese air force and navy have made a sport of menacing the island nation whose 23.5 million citizens live under a democratic–as opposed to authoritarian–political system. (In fact, PLAAF H-6K’s flew near Taiwan again on April 1.) Between 2016 and 2018 the scale and nature of Chinese military activities grew ominous as Taiwan was encircled multiple times and missile-armed bombers stalked its airspace. President Xi Jinping’s regular proclamations about war readiness are hardly comforting against the backdrop of the PLA’s shocking maritime expansion and clandestine programs for strategic bombers.

Rather than capitulate, Taiwan under President Tsai, who’s facing a lot of domestic pressure due to a middling economy, is seeking further US military assistance and digging in with a not-so-subtle naval arms race whose goal is withstanding a full-scale invasion.

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