MELBOURNE, Australia — China is likely using an unused civilian airport just across the Strait of Taiwan to conduct its overflights near the island, with satellite imagery on different occasions showing military aircraft parked on the ground that correspond with Taiwanese military reports.
Shantou-Waisha airport, less than 220 miles across the strait from the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan, has played host to rotating detachments of People’s Liberation Army aircraft since at least October 2020, according to satellite imagery provided to Defense News by Planet Labs.
The mixed civilian and military airport, which used to service the city of Shantou, ceased commercial operations in 2011 when the nearby Jieyang-Chaoshan airport opened to become the city’s civilian airport.
The October 2020 imagery showed two Shaanxi KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare aircraft on what used to be the civil parking apron, with the type’s distinctive tail-mounted anomaly detector boom clearly visible.
Two similar aircraft were seen May 7, 2021, with one of these seen taxiing toward the runway in another satellite photo that has been published on Google Earth.
According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, two KQ-200s — which it described as “Y-8 ASW” because the KQ-200 is based on the Y-8F airlifter — entered the southern part of its air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, on that day, flying from and returning in the direction of the city.
That type of area is airspace over which the identification and location of aircraft operating in it is monitored for national security purposes, and is separate from and may extend beyond a country’s territorial airspace to give the country more time to respond to aircraft of interest.
China’s KQ-200s have been the most common aircraft reported by Taiwan crossing into its ADIZ. The type is operated by the PLA Navy’s air arm; the nearest known units operating the platform are regiments based at Dachang in Shanghai to the north and at Qionghai on the southern Chinese island of Hainan on the fringes of the South China Sea.
In addition to the above occasions, low-resolution images of the old civil apron showed between one and three aircraft there since the middle of 2020, suggesting these deployments began at least that early.
Planet Labs also provided Defense News with photos of the airport taken Sept. 2, which showed six Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker aircraft, or its Chinese Shenyang J-11/16 derivatives, on the northern apron. This was followed by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reporting four and two Su-30s entering its ADIZ on Sept. 5 and 6, respectively, from the direction of Shantou.
While not definitive, the reports by the ministry and the presence of similar types at Shantou-Waisha on corresponding days as well as their flight tracks in and out of the zone suggest the air base is used as a convenient jumping-off point by PLA aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ.
The use of the base not only shortens transit times into the zone but also enables the PLA to attain faster access to and conduct training and/or patrols over the southern part of the Taiwan Strait, the northern part of the South China Sea and the Bashi Channel.
The channel lies between Taiwan and the Philippines, and it provides direct deep-water access to the northern part of the disputed South China Sea from the Pacific Ocean. It is also one of the several strategic chokepoints of the so-called First Island Chain.
These rotating detachments at the base are in addition to the single PLA Air Force aircraft unit resident at the base, which is believed to be operating the Chengdu J-7E interceptor. The J-7E is a development of the 1960s-era Russian MiG-21 interceptor, which China’s aviation industry has progressively improved.
The satellite images show J-7s parked at the base, although Taiwan’s ministry has not reported any of the single-engine jets crossing into its ADIZ since June 17, which was the sole occasion the ministry noted the type crossing into the zone since it began issuing daily reports in September 2020.
In addition to Shantou-Waisha, the PLA is also believed to be staging its flights over Taiwan’s ADIZ from the base of Huizhou-Huiyang. The base, which is also a civilian airport, has seen regular rotations of electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft based on the Y-8 and Y-9 airframes, including the KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft.
The base also hosts occasional rotations of PLA tactical aircraft in addition to the two resident PLA Air Force regiments, which operate the Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-16 combat aircraft. These rotations have joined the former in flying inside Taiwan’s ADIZ, usually crossing into the zone flying from the west.
Xi’an JH-7 fighter-bombers were seen on satellite imagery of the base taken between late December 2020 and March 2021 that was published on Google Earth. The base is located about 300 miles west of the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung,
A pair of JH-7s subsequently made forays into Taiwan’s ADIZ on Feb. 19, and again the next day, marking two of just four occasions the type has done so since Taiwan began its daily reports.
China sent a record 149 PLA aircraft into the zone between Oct. 1 and 4, coinciding with China’s national day on the first of the month. They have not, however, entered or come close to Taiwanese airspace, nor have they crossed the median line over the strait that serves as the unofficial air and maritime boundary between China and Taiwan.
Depending on their flight profile, Taiwan either issues verbal warnings, scrambles interceptors or activates ground-based air defenses in response to the Chinese aircraft.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.