United Daily News Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 17, 2016
Executive Summary: PLA Air Force planes circled Taiwan as a symbolic gesture. They were saber rattling. But tension between the US and China will turn Taiwan into a front line where the two sides clash. If we refuse to understand that we are merely a pawn, but instead self-righteously imagine that we enjoy leverage, and pat ourselves on the back, we can only be described as stupid beyond belief.
Full Text Below:
Last week, four PLA Air Force bombers and electronic reconnaissance planes flew through the Miyako Strait into the western Pacific Ocean. They proceed southward through the Bashi Channel, then flew westward back to the Mainland. They set a record by circling Taiwan twice in two weeks. Defense Minister Feng Shi-kuan said the PLA may increase the frequency of such flights in the future. The PLA may even circle Taiwan once a month. ROC military officials think the PLA Air Force may even use tankers, so that fighters can accompany them for the entire duration of the flight.
Beginning in 2013, PLA Air Force planes have been patrolling the first island chain, from the northern end of Taiwan to the southern end, on a regular basis. This time the PLA planes changed the way they flew. They did not return the way they came. The planes took off from the south, and returned in the north. They took off from the north, and returned in the south. From a military training perspective, this was nothing new. Bombers and electronic reconnaissance aircraft are big and slow. In the event of war, unless ROC military air defense systems have disintegrated, PLA Air Force planes, even accompanied by tankers and fighters, will not be able to come and go freely from the east. In any event, taking a different route back after circling Taiwan, has gotten the attention of Taipei, Washington, and Tokyo.
Since taking office, the Tsai government has refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus. This has changed cross-Strait relations. Following the Trump Tsai phone call, Trump and his administration have challenged the One China principle repeatedly. Therefore Beijing's preemptive saber rattling is not hard to understand. The saber rattling has gotten peoples' attention, without the need to issue any actual threats. Its intent is psychological intimidation.
The PLA Air Force's long range flights, cannot avoid entering Japan's air defense identification zone. An ADIZ is not sovereign airspace. It has no legal status. It is international airspace. An ADIZ however, is an international demarcation of one's “turf”. It is a show of one's hand in a test of strength. If military aircraft enter one's ADIZ without a response, one will be seen as a paper tiger. Therefore, as long as PLA Air Force planes fly through the Miyako Strait, the Japanese must dispatch interceptors to greet them. This may exhaust Japanese interceptors dispatched from the Ryukyus, but they must assert their claim over this airspace.
Taipei has a much smaller ADIZ. Therefore it has no problem with intrusions. But if cross-Strait relations continue to deteriorate, CCP confidence in the prospect of a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue might weaken. The situation in the Western Pacific could become tense due to the collision between Washington and Beijing. Flights around Taiwan will become more frequent. They will come closer and closer. They may even enter out ADIZ in the name of freedom of navigation in international airspace. The Ministry of Defense has declared that if PLA Air Force planes enter our ADIZ, we “will not fear, will not evade, will not show weakness". He also declared that if PLA planes must ditch at sea, we will abide by humanitarian principles. But just how should these "three noes" be implemented? In the event of an accident, how should the crisis be resolved? Agencies charged with national security must be thoroughly briefed. They should establish a tacit agreement among all parties, even Beijing.
Militarily speaking, "secret weapons" and "saber rattling" should be used each in their own turn. One must not be too quick to back down. But neither should one prematurely reveal one's trump cards. This time, agencies charged with national security made public for the first time information regarding the PLA Air Force flights around Taiwan. This was a marked change from its past secrecy. They seized the propaganda initiative. They reminded people of the possible consequences. But they must also guard against pride and complacency. When they publicly disclose such information, they reveal their own hand as well. They must not repeat Lee Teng-hui's blunder. During the Taiwan Strait missile crisis, he revealed that the PLA was "merely firing blanks". They must not repeat Chen Shui-bian's blunder, when he revealed knowledge of PLA missile locations in Fujian. By doing so, he blew the cover of ROC agents on the Mainland. Past experience suggests that the military is conservative and patient. But Feng Shi-kuan told the Legislative Yuan he was confident we could shoot down any PLA planes that entered our ADIZ". We must be wary of such unguarded outbursts.
Even more worrying, some high-level government aides shot off their mouths pandering to deep green voters. They said "We locked on to PLA military aircraft, forcing them to depart". On top such ignorant boasts about military affairs, they red-baited the former Ma government, accusing it of being afraid to say anything. In particular, after Trump questioned the One China Principle, the Green Camp could barely contain itself. It was prepared to lead an "Anti-China Jihad", and brushed aside all concern for Taiwan's security. Given their state of mind, how can there be any national security?
PLA Air Force planes circled Taiwan as a symbolic gesture. They were saber rattling. But tension between the US and China will turn Taiwan into a front line where the two sides clash. If we refuse to understand that we are merely a pawn, but instead self-righteously imagine that we enjoy leverage, and pat ourselves on the back, we can only be described as stupid beyond belief.