by Brian Hioe

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TAIWAN HAS SEEN a significant uptick in the number of incursions into its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by Chinese warplanes in the past week. In the five days from October 1st to October 5th, Taiwan saw 150 incursions. 

According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Tuesday, Taiwan has seen over 600 incursions this year. This is up from 380 from 2020, during which Taiwan sortied fighter planes to conduct interceptions of 2,972 times, at a cost of 886 million USD. Close to 25% of these incursions may have just taken place in the last week. It is to be seen whether this means that China intends to significantly step up military intimidation of Taiwan in the near future. 

At the same time, one has seen the circulation of an unusual claim online—that Taiwan is, in fact, reporting flights that occurred over the Chinese mainland. It is indeed true that Taiwan’s ADIZ extends into the Chinese mainland. And so, this misinformation/disinformation claim mixes fact with falsehood to make it appear as though Taiwan is overreacting to the ADIZ incursions and suggests that Taiwan is simply ratcheting up tensions for its own purposes by playing the victim. 

Nevertheless, this misinformation/disinformation claim would be a form of victim-blaming more than anything else. Though the origin of this claim is unclear, it does not require too much hard thinking to note why it might be in China’s interests to depict Taiwan as the one who is being overly provocative of China, China is simply carrying out legitimate actions. 

ADIZ does not refer to a country’s sovereign airspace, which extends twelve nautical miles from the coast of that country, but refers to the airspace above land or water in which aircraft normally identify themselves for security purposes. ADIZs in East Asia were generally established in the 1950s, including Taiwan’s, which is also why Taiwan’s ADIZ extends into China. Consequently, Taiwan and China’s ADIZ overlap not only in areas extending into China and areas extending off the coast of China, but in parts of the East China Sea, following China extending its ADIZ in 2013. But in this respect, Taiwan’s ADIZ is known and established. 

Taiwan’s MND only reacts when Chinese warplanes leave Chinese airspace and enter Taiwan’s ADIZ. It simply should require a tiny modicum of common sense to note that if Taiwan’s MND reported all Chinese planes flying over the Chinese mainland in parts that are technically within Taiwan’s ADIZ, the number of air incursions per year would be much higher than 380 or even 600, and this would not require scrambling fighter jets 2,972 times in 2020. Nevertheless, somehow, without even so much as glancing at the numbers, many have become convinced that the Taiwanese government is overinflating the matter—something rooted in long-standing victim-blaming directed at Taiwan. 

Part of the ambiguity that such misinformation/disinformation draws on is confusion regarding what the median line of the Taiwan Strait refers to. Namely, the median line of the Taiwan Strait has only been crossed on four days by Chinese warplanes since September 2020. But this does not mean that Chinese warplanes have not entered Taiwan’s ADIZ, moving to areas southwest or southeast of Taiwan in a threatening way before. 

In particular, the median line of the Taiwan Strait goes from a set longitude and latitude from outlying islands of Japan to the vicinity of Hong Kong. That is, the median line of the Taiwan Strait has a set length, and does not extend endlessly in space. It does not refer to the halfway point between Taiwan and China in the Taiwan Strait or some imaginary line that extends forever demarcating that. And, while China refuses to officially acknowledge the median line, it clearly is aware of the possibility for provocation that crossing the median line has. As such, China generally avoided crossing the median line until September 2020. Crossing the median line was part of a greater pattern of escalation for Chinese flybys at that point in time.

Even when Chinese warplanes do not cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait, this does not mean that they are not entering Taiwan’s ADIZ and approaching near Taiwanese airspace southwest and southeast of geographic Taiwan in a manner meant to intimidate. However, it is easy to frame the issue as though Chinese warplanes were not approaching Taiwan, as though Taiwan is simply reacting to planes that have remained firmly on China’s half of the Taiwan Strait. This confusion is what is being leveraged on for such misinformation/disinformation claims. 

As stated, it should require only a little bit of common sense to realize that Taiwan’s MND could not and would not react to Chinese planes flying over the Chinese mainland. One notes the cost of dispatching planes to intercept, the potential for accidents, and the stress this puts on Taiwanese airframes, hence why the Taiwanese government would not do that. It is also rather absurd to paint Taiwan as the provocateur regarding the recent air incursions when it is, after all, Taiwan that was militarily threatened by over one hundred fifty planes in the past week, and which sees dozens of Chinese planes sent to intimidate Taiwan sometimes on a daily basis. 

Yet the Chinese government has seen great successes in past decades framing Taiwan as though it were the provocateur of cross-strait relations and not it, in pushing for formal independence or otherwise seeking to defend its current de facto independence. As this framing has persisted for years, one does not expect this to change anytime soon. So, too, then, with attempts to put the shoe on the other foot regarding the military intimidation of Taiwan by Chinese warplanes. And while there may be no smoking gun, as is generally the case with misinformation/disinformation, it is easy to connect the dots as to who may have an interest in continuing to paint Taiwan as the provocateur—even in the immediate wake of a historically high number amount of Chinese air incursions. 

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