The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) sent several H-6 bombers near Taiwan on Feb. 10, including one that provocatively crossed the middle dividing line between the mainland and Taiwan, prompting Taipei’s military to scramble F-16 jets to intercept and shadow the bomber. A day later, the U.S. Pacific Air Force flew two B-52 nuclear-capable bombers near Taiwan in an apparent response.
The Chinese and U.S. flights come close on the heels of the reelection of independence-leaning Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose decisive victory was seen as a rebuke of Chinese pressure tactics in places such as Hong Kong.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell said the recent bomber flights near Taiwan indicate that the Chinese government is stepping up military pressure on Taiwan after Ms. Tsai’s election victory last month, even as Beijing is consumed with the fight to control the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The fact President Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party remained in power comes as a direct refutation of Communist China’s assertion of sovereignty over the island,” said Capt. Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief. “As such, it comes as no surprise that the PLA would escalate tensions by deploying PLAAF bombers around the island and crossing the center line inside the Taiwan Strait.
Air Force Maj. Victoria Hight, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Air Forces, confirmed in a statement last week that two U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bombers “flew from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and conducted synchronized training south of the Taiwan Strait.”
An Air Force MC-130J Commando II aircraft based at Kadena Air Base, Japan, joined the bombers during the flight Feb. 11 before returning to Guam.
“U.S. aircraft regularly operate throughout the region in support of allies, partners and in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Maj. Hight, noting that the military has conducted similar flights for more than 15 years as part of regional “continuous bomber operations.”
U.S. military officials say publicly that the bomber flights were not meant as a direct challenge to China, and Air Force Lt. Nikita Thorpe, another spokeswoman, said the bomber flights “are not related to any specific situation or nation.”
“The U.S. military has maintained a deployed strategic bomber presence in the Pacific since March 2004,” she said.
The bomber flights provide Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command, with flexible response capabilities in the region, Lt. Thorpe said.
Chinese officials say the Taiwan Strait flights were intended not as a provocation but as a training exercise.
The People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command said in a statement last week that its forces carried out “air-ground assault and fire support drills to further refine and test their multi-service joint combat capabilities.”
China carried out its military activities last week while the ruling Communist Party was grappling with the health and political crisis spawned by the spread of a new coronavirus that causes a deadly respiratory disease called COVID-19. The outbreak originated in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province.
Regarding the Chinese flights, Taiwan’s government-run Central News Agency said one Chinese H-6 bomber crossed over the center line dividing the 100-mile Taiwan Strait, prompting protests from Taipei for straying into Taiwanese airspace.
‘Meaningless and unnecessary’
Ms. Tsai said on Facebook that Chinese military aircraft “circumnavigated around Taiwan and neighboring countries, and the nation’s military services monitored and surveilled their entire route, and immediately sent fighter jets to respond.”
“I would like to remind the Chinese government that choosing to take military action during the outbreak of Wuhan pneumonia in China is not only meaningless but also unnecessary,” Ms. Tsai said. “The only thing the Chinese government should be doing is to control the pneumonia epidemic in Wuhan as swiftly as possible, because then, and only then, can regional and global tensions be eased.”
In addition to the H-6 bombers, Chinese military aircraft involved in the exercises included J-11 jet fighters and KJ-500 early warning aircraft. The flight route transited the Bashi Channel off southern Taiwan and headed eastward into the Pacific before turning around and going across the Miyako Strait north of Taiwan and near Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China has claimed as its territory.
Capt. Fanell said the use of PLA aircraft to threaten Taiwan while thousands of Chinese are dying from a viral disease “should be a wake-up call to defense planners in Taipei, Honolulu and Washington, D.C.”
“Long-held assumptions that Beijing would not ever attempt to invade Taiwan need to be jettisoned now and immediate counteractions implemented to deter such a decision,” he said.
Capt. Fanell said the U.S. military should begin force deployments to Taiwan, beginning with port calls by Navy warships and Air Force aircraft. “Time is not a friend,” he said. “Firm, unambiguous deterrent actions are needed now.”
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst, said deterring PLA bombers will become more difficult in the coming decade once China’s new H-20 flying-wing stealth bomber is deployed. Chinese sources have indicated that the bomber will weigh 200 tons and will be large enough to carry ballistic missile payloads, he added.
“This means that detecting PLA bombers will become far more difficult,” he said.
Mr. Fisher said the PLAAF has about 100 H-6 bombers capable of carrying six 932-mile-range CJ-10 land attack cruise missiles, or 250-mile-range YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missiles. It is also likely that the H-6 can fire an air-launched ballistic missile with a range of up to 1,300 miles.
To prevent a Chinese takeover, the Trump administration needs to upgrade Taiwan’s military and defense capabilities, he said, and should consider selling Taipei systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) or SM-3 surface-to-air missiles “that can defeat PLA bombers before they launch their cruise missiles.”
Alexander Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taipei, said the Chinese leadership probably designed the exercises during the virus crisis as a show of strength.
“Putting pressure on Taiwan is a side effect,” Mr. Huang told Voice of America. “The current Chinese move — first it wanted to show the world that even with the coronavirus, the People’s Liberation Army still has time and capability to do the regular training far away from their coastline.”