MELBOURNE, Australia — China and the United States have stepped up military activities near Taiwan and the South China Sea, with both sides also trading diplomatic barbs as the incoming Biden administration signals it will continue to shore up support for the self-governing island, of which China claims as part of its territory.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, which publishes daily reports of Chinese air activities inside its air defense zone, reported tracking 13 and 15 military aircraft from China on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
That was a noticeable uptick in the People’s Liberation Army’s typical air activity inside Taiwan’ air defense identification zone, which usually amounts to a handful of aircraft daily. These tend to be anti-submarine or intelligence-gathering aircraft based on the Shaanxi Y-9 turboprop airlifter. However, the Chinese aircraft from the weekend were mostly combat variants in the form of Xi’an H-6K bombers as well as Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-16 and Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets.
It is unclear if the increased number of aircraft near Taiwan was part of a scheduled exercise or China sending a signal to Taiwan, which it sees as a breakaway province and has vowed to incorporate back into the mainland, by force if necessary.
Previous increases in aerial activities occurred in the wake of Taiwan-related activities seen by China as provocative, such as visits to the island by American officials. Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the U.S., Bi-khim Hsiao, was at the inauguration of President Joe Biden last week — the first time the Taiwanese envoy attended an American presidential inauguration since 1979.
The U.S. State Department responded to China’s air activities in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, issuing a statement noting “with concern the pattern of ongoing [People’s Republic of China] PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.” It also urged “Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.”
Saturday also saw the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt enter the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. A C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft also appeared on online flight-tracking software, climbing from a point in the middle of the channel on Saturday, leading to suspicion that the carrier was entering the disputed waters. This was confirmed by a news release from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command the next day, which said the carrier and its strike group will be “conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units.”
The command’s plan appears to include a South Korea-based U.S. Air Force U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which was also picked up on flight-tracking websites departing its base in Osan, south of the South Korean capital Seoul, flying down to the South China Sea on Monday morning local time before returning later in the day.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.