China flew an unprecedented 52 warplanes near Taiwanese airspace on Monday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense reported, marking a troubling escalation as Beijing boasts of sending record numbers of attack aircraft at a time of heightened tensions.
China’s English language Global Times, considered a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, confirmed the deployment and that the Chinese military set new records for the scale of the aerial provocations on both Friday and Saturday over the Taiwan Straits. It said the deployments helped mark the country’s National Day on Oct. 1, the annual celebration of the party’s founding, but indicated they are also in response to a U.S.-led armada of allied ships that sailed through the contested Philippine Sea late last week.
The deployments come at a time of rising tensions in the region, with growing Western concern that Beijing believes now may be the time to attempt to annex the island nation – and increased brazenness from China.
“The PLA has done an excellent job!” the Chinese outlet proclaimed, referring to the People’s Liberation Army, the name for China’s military. “It is a clear and unmistakable declaration of China’s sovereignty over the island.”
“They are fighting forces aimed at actual combat,” it continued. “The increase in the number of aircraft showed the PLA Air Force’s operational capabilities. The warplanes that gathered over the Straits were possibly dispatched from different airports, showing the strong ability of the PLA to form a wartime air attack.”
The deployment on Monday almost doubled the previous record before Friday of 28 Chinese aircraft flying into Taiwanese airspace set in June. On Friday, it boasted of deploying 38 warplanes on similar exercises, followed by 39 on Saturday.
Taiwanese officials in recent days have raised alarm about the moves and said they are bracing for war.
“If China is going to launch a war against Taiwan, we will fight to the end, and that is our commitment,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told the Australian broadcaster ABC in an interview it will air Monday. “I’m sure that if China is going to launch an attack against Taiwan, I think they are going to suffer tremendously as well.”
The U.S. blasted those moves on Sunday.
“The United States is very concerned by the People’s Republic of China’s provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan.”
“The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region,” Price said. “We will continue to stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values and deepen our ties with democratic Taiwan.”
Despite the bold language, China has indicated recently it believes it can now test America’s willingness to deploy its military into a new conflict after its embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government there.
“The U.S. may retreat once they see no way to reap the benefits, just like they did in Afghanistan,” the Chinese outlet said in a separate post on Saturday.
China says its sorties served at least in part as a response to an unusually high-profile concentration of Western and allied warships conducting exercises in the region, led by two U.S. aircraft carriers – the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson – as well as a British one, the HMS Queen Elizabeth. In total, 17 warships from six countries participated in the training.
Despite the increased firepower and assurances from allies, it remains unclear how capable and willing the U.S. would be to defend the island nation known in the Pentagon as “Fortress Taiwan” from an outright attack.
Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, said at a virtual event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Friday that the U.S. was monitoring the situation in Taiwan “very carefully” and that it has “a significant amount of capability forward in the region to tamp down” China’s ambitions.
Both the mainland and the island nation claim to be the legitimate government over the other. Only a dozen or so minor countries recognize Taiwan as an independent nation – a number that has dwindled in recent years as China employs its economic influence to isolate Taipei internationally.