U.S.-Taiwan Ties Boosted by Military Teamwork in South China Sea

Tacit military exchanges between Washington and Taipei took another step forward this week when Taiwan's defense ministry began openly notifying the public of U.S. military aircraft activity near the island.

Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense has been publicizing the near-daily Chinese warplane activity in the island's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) since last September.

U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force aircraft were also included in an update on Sunday.

However, unlike its tallying of People's Liberation Army (PLA) fighter jets, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, the ministry does not list detailed model numbers or flight paths of American surveillance planes operating in the southwestern corner of its ADIZ, which is at the mouth of the South China Sea.

Major General Chen Kuo-hua of the Republic of China Air Force—the official name of the island nation's air force—told Newsweek that U.S. military activity was being announced in order to give the Taiwanese public a "clearer understanding of military aircraft movements in and around the Taiwan Strait."

The new policy would make regional developments "more transparent," Chen, the air force's director of political warfare, said in a written statement. The air force would continue this trend in the future, he added.

One PLA Y-8 ASW and three US aircraft (RECCE*2, TANKER) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Feb. 1, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/2Ai8isnqrf pic.twitter.com/07VlHnSQPX

— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) February 1, 2021

U.S.-Taiwan military exchanges, including the training of Taiwanese marines and pilots, have been considered an open secret since Washington severed ties with Taipei and switched formal diplomatic allegiances to Beijing in 1979.

Relations between Taipei and Washington warmed in recent years during the administrations of Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen and former President Donald Trump. Tsai's government received vocal support from the Trump administration, which approved 11 arms sales and also sent cabinet-level officials to visit the island last year.

After the presidential elections last November, some in Taiwan feared President Joe Biden would not show Taipei the same amount of backing as he tried to repair relations with Beijing. So far, the opposite has been true, with the new U.S. administration taking a number of significant steps to express its commitment to safeguarding democratic Taiwan.

Su Tzu-yun, a senior defense analyst with Taiwan's government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), said Taipei would likely have consulted the Pentagon before publishing U.S. aircraft movements around the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

He read the move as a step up for U.S.-Taiwan security ties, and said it was a beneficial military confidence-building measure.

"Taiwan has always been very sensitive to regional developments," he said. "That the defense ministry has begun labeling U.S. military aircraft means that there is teamwork between the two governments."

Su said it was "indirect proof of cooperation" Taiwan and the U.S., and that Taipei was now following international protocols practiced by others in the region, including Japan.

Three U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and one tanker operated in Taiwan's ADIZ between Sunday and Tuesday, according to the island's defense ministry.

All four days witnessed the appearance of PLA warplanes, including fighter jets, into the defensive airspace. Taiwan's air force issues radio warnings and scrambles interceptor jets on each occasion.

Biden's first test

On the first weekend of President Biden's inauguration, the Chinese military flew 28 sorties into Taiwan's southwestern ADIZ—a type of airspace also used by China but not regulated under international law.

The unusually large warplane intrusion, which included eight H-6K heavy bombers, was seen as a message to the new U.S. president and coincided with the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to the contested South China Sea for training exercises.

The PLA activity drew a call from the State Department for China to cease military pressure on Taiwan and engage in meaningful dialog instead. The statement stood out for its omission of any one-China policy and inclusion of the Six Assurances—key principles of unofficial U.S.-Taiwan ties.

"My view is that President Biden and his team are off to a great start," Taiwan Strait expert Ian Easton, who is senior director at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia, told Newsweek.

The "remarkable" PLA bomber activity in the Taiwan Strait, he said, "has been widely interpreted as Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party signaling President Biden and his foreign policy team, testing their resolve."

He added: "If so, the new Biden administration has clearly passed that test with flying colors. Beijing must be very disappointed."

Easton, who authored The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia, said the U.S. and Taiwan would be able to successfully deter a Chinese attack if they "work closer together like democratic allies."

However, he noted the "massive" and "dangerous" gaps still remaining in Washington's policy toward China and Taiwan.

Su, of Taipei think tank INDSR, had said previously that Beijing's frequent use of electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft in the regular ADIZ sorties was indicative of its more defensive intentions.

However, the recent return of J-11 air superiority fighters appeared to signal another escalation.

"China's military culture is 70 percent politics and 30 percent military," Su said. "China is obsessed with hard power. It responds to political issues with military shows of force."

According to Su, who is a former national security adviser, PLA activity in the Taiwan Strait would have been successfully sold to the Chinese public as the CCP's standing up to the United States and others in the region.

He described Beijing's dramatic warplane activity on January 23 and 24 as a "strategic mistake," one which would only prove the "China threat theory" and legitimize U.S. commitments to Taiwan's security, as well as more hardline policies toward China.

Taiwan Shows Off Domestically Produced Fighter Jet
File photo: A domestically-produced F-CK-1 indigenous defence fighter jet (IDF) is displayed at Penghu Air Force Base on Magong island in the Penghu islands on September 22, 2020. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images