Since the start of this year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has conducted three long-distance training exercises over open seas that took its warplanes close to Taiwan’s airspace.
The first such exercise, late last month, was part of a joint-forces exercise with Task Force 161 of the PLA Navy simulating sea-air combat on the open seas.
The two drills held on Feb. 9 and Feb. 10 were aimed at the armed forces of Taiwan, the US and Japan.
Local media reported that Chinese Shenyang J-11 jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait while returning to their bases after completing the drills, and one of them even locked its radar on a Taiwanese F-16 jet that flew out to intercept them.
Faced with this new situation in cross-strait sea and air encounters, Taiwan needs to address it prudently and quickly figure out how to handle such incidents.
There has been a number of developments in Chinese military activity near Taiwan since July 2018.
In January last year, Chinese ships and aircraft passed through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines to conduct open-sea, sea-air combat exercises involving a naval task force.
On March 31 last year, Chinese warplanes crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
However, apart from these incidents, the PLA has more or less suspended its Taiwan circumnavigation exercises. It is widely believed that China did this to avoid causing resentment among Taiwanese that could have a negative influence on the November 2018 nine-in-one elections and last month’s presidential and legislative elections.
However, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) swept to victory in the Jan. 11 election with more than 8.17 million votes — a record high for any presidential vote in Taiwan.
Since then, the PLA has restarted its round-Taiwan flights and sea patrols, and upped the ante by having one aircraft lock its radar on a Taiwanese warplane that was sent to shadow it. The strategic intention behind these actions should not be taken lightly.
This is not the first time that PLA warplanes or ships have locked their fire-control radars on those of other nations. In 2013, the Chinese missile frigate Wenzhou locked its fire-control radar on a helicopter of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Takanami-class destroyer Onami and the frigate Lianyungang locked on to the Murasame-class destroyer Yudachi.
Locking on to a target with fire-control radar means establishing a line of fire and calculating fire-control data. Guns can then be fired or missiles launched with just a flick of the finger. It means absolute hostility and readiness to engage in combat.
On Feb. 9 and 10, China’s Shenyang J-11B and J-11BS fighters, tasked with escorting Xian H-6 bombers around Taiwan, were carrying PL-12 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles that have a 40km no-escape zone. These missiles pose a serious threat to Taiwanese fighters that are sent to shadow Chinese airplanes.
The Chinese warplanes crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait and locking on to shadowing F-16s were unlikely to have been individual decisions taken by their pilots.
It is much more likely that they were carrying out orders. Of course, their purpose would not be to attack, but to use “compellent strategies,” which are more aggressive than “deterrence,” to intimidate Taiwan.
Following the 2013 incident, I wrote an opinion piece for the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times) about Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang military exercises from the perspective of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) territorial dispute.
I suggested that Taiwan’s armed forces should review the applicability of the military’s rules of engagement, “Ku-an battle plan” (固安作戰計畫) and battle regulations and operation procedures, and validate them in the course of the Han Kuang exercises.
Now that the nation’s armed forces are facing real challenges from the PLA, the military should consider following up on the previous deployment of MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missiles on Green Island (綠島) by deploying missiles on Cimei Island (七美嶼), the southernmost of the Penghu Islands.
This would not only safeguard Taiwanese warplanes, but also consolidate Taiwan’s absolute sovereignty over its southwestern airspace.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and a former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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