MELBOURNE, Australia — China has sent its largest-ever number of military aircraft in a single day into the international airspace surrounding Taiwan, with the island nation scrambling its fighter jets and deploying air defense missile systems in response.
The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense said 28 People’s Liberation Army aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone from the southwest on Tuesday. The aircraft included fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers, and they flew in six distinct groups, according to a ministry news release and an accompanying graphic.
The fighter jets were comprised of 14 Shenyang J-16 multirole strike aircraft and six J-11 interceptors, along with four Xi’an H-6 bombers. The remainder were electronic warfare, anti-submarine and airborne early warning aircraft. About three of these groups flew to the Western Pacific via the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan, before turning back.
Taiwan has accused China of attempting to wear down its Air Force with regular flybys, with former Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa telling parliament in October 2020 that Taiwan flew 2,972 sorties against Chinese aircraft between January and October that year.
In Beijing, the spokesman of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ma Xiaoguang, said the latest flybys were a response to “acts of collusion” between Taiwan and “foreign forces” in a bid to secure Taiwanese independence. China sees self-ruled Taiwan as a rogue province and has vowed to reincorporate the island with the mainland.
The flybys happened on the same day the U.S. Navy said a carrier group, led by the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, entered the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel. Citing a spokesman from the carrier group, Reuters reported the Navy did not have any interactions with the Chinese aircraft.
China has previously flown a large bomber force near Taiwan while a U.S. Navy carrier group was transiting the nearby waters. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that one such force of H-6s carried out a “mock attack” on the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group as the lead ship and its escorts transited the Bashi Channel.
Prior to Tuesday’s flyby, an analyst with the Japanese Defense Ministry’s National Institute for Defense Studies pointed to a pattern of Chinese air activity near Taiwan.
In his commentary, published June 8, Masayoshi Monma, noted that H-6s, which can carry anti-ship supersonic and cruise missiles, were active around Taiwan when the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group sailed through the Bashi Channel in late January 2021. He added that fighters and airborne early warning aircraft were also present, based on data released by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. He speculated that the former were carrying out bomber escort drills under the command and control of the latter.
At the time, Monma wrote that Chinese air activity around Taiwan was growing in sophistication and complexity, and suggested the possibility of midair refueling tankers joining such training operations in the future. Those additional aircraft would enable China’s fighters and bombers to increase their time on station and bolster their range into the Western Pacific.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.