TAIPEI, Taiwan – At first, Taiwanese soldiers ignored drones flying in from China. Then, when the flights increased, they fired warning shots. In the end, the soldiers shot one into the sea.
Over the past month, nearly 30 drones have flown over two islands in Taiwan near China’s southern coast. The drones are mostly civilian, or unidentified, but are clearly targeting Taiwanese soldiers stationed on the outcrops.
The drones are adding to tensions between the two sides that have escalated over the past month to new highs. China, claiming self-governing Taiwan as its territory, has increase military presence In the Taiwan Strait, jets and sailing ships drew closer and closer to the island, testing its defenses and increasing the risk of conflict.
“China is using such harassment to increase pressure, deliberately heightening tensions around Taiwan,” said Chieh Chung, an analyst at the National Taiwan Policy Foundation. “Don’t assume that civilian drones have nothing to do with military purposes.”
The question is how will Taiwan react to future Chinese drone flights that may enter its airspace, and whether that could deter Beijing without warning. not provoke conflict or not. In the past week, in addition to conventional fighters, the Chinese military has sent four drones into the airspace near Taiwan, the island of Taiwan. Ministry of Defense said. China flew TB-001, a combat drone also known as Two-tailed scorpionon Thursday, and two reconnaissance drones on Friday and Saturday, according to Taiwan.
For China, military drones can be used to gather intelligence. Civilian drones are a new source of domestic propaganda aimed at undermining Taiwan’s image.
On Chinese social media, photos taken by a drone show two Taiwanese soldiers looking surprised and surprised. Some images show the contrast between the towering skyscrapers of the Chinese city of Xiamen and the squalid conditions of Taiwanese soldiers on the islands. Chinese commentators mocked soldiers for throwing rocks at the drones.
For Taiwan, the drones represent the latest front in China’s campaign of intimidation and psychological warfare, known as “gray zone” tactics. The frequent incursions put pressure on the Taiwanese government to resolutely respond. President Tsai Ing-wen has warned China that Taiwan’s military will not stand by in the face of aggression. “We will not incite disputes, and we will exercise self-restraint, but that does not mean we will not protest,” she said in a recent speech about the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait.
On September 1, two days after Ms. Tsai’s speech, Taiwanese soldiers shot down a civilian drone, an unusual move for Taiwan, which has been restrained in pushing forward. back China.
Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official specializing in China, said part of the challenge for Taiwan is that its military is equipped to deal with Chinese warplanes but isn’t used to those such a low-level but constant shuffle. When drones first appeared, Taiwan proved unprepared and did not have enough equipment to counter them.
Mr. Thompson said: “The military has been caught a little flat. “Taiwan is still fighting a 20th century war and needs to adopt 21st century asymmetrical strategies.”
After the drone was shot down, Taiwan’s military dispatched additional drone jammers – which can disrupt the signals of approaching drones – to their bases. on the Kinmen and Matsu Islands, said Major General Chang Jun-Shen of the Kinmen Defense Command. The two islands, with substantial garrisons, send troops to Shiyu, or Lion Island, the small remote island where soldiers shot down the drones. Defense analysts say fewer than 20 troops have been sent to the island.
China’s drones started buzzing over the islands after Beijing did large-scale military exercises against Taiwan in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit early last month.
The drone flights are the latest iteration of the “gray zone” tactic that China has used over the past few years to try to coerce and bring Taiwan to its knees, analysts say. and prevent war at the same time. Such tactics have spawned a range from daily fighter jet flights over the median line of the Taiwan Strait to cyberattacks against civilian agencies such as Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. .
China has steadily increased the number of its military flights around Taiwan in an attempt to reduce the readiness of Taiwan’s air force, experts say. Forcing Taiwan’s pilots to move their jets repeatedly, for short periods of time, leads to fatigue and low morale.
Taiwan has sought to upgrade its capabilities to address Chinese encroachment and concerns in Washington that Taiwan needs to do more to strengthen its defenses. The Biden administration approved the sale of more than $1.1 billion in military weapons, including anti-ship missiles and surveillance radars, to Taiwan this month. In the past, some arms sales, including under the Trump administration, have been larger. Still, Beijing complains that the package would “seriously jeopardize” their relationship with the United States and urged Washington to withdraw the sale.
The Taiwanese government also recently announced a sharp increase in its annual military budget. The $19 billion budget is up 13.9% year-on-year, compared with an average increase of less than 4% per year since 2017. Some of the new money will be spent on new fighters, the Department of Defense said. know.
Meanwhile, China announced a military budget of $229 billion earlier this year.
Experts say China has devoted huge resources to developing drone technology over the past decade, suggesting it will continue to use different types of drones against Taiwan.
“It’s clear that drones will have a huge role to play in any Chinese campaign to conquer Taiwan,” said Lyle Goldstein, Asia director. for Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank, and an expert on China’s military. “China has made great efforts to integrate drone technology into all parts of the People’s Liberation Army, as well as related services such as the People’s Armed Police and the People’s Armed Police. sea.”
Some experts say they think the commercial drones that flew late last month were operated by amateurs amusing themselves by humming a handful of Taiwanese soldiers over the islands and then that post pictures on social networks.
Thompson, a former Pentagon official, said it appeared the civilian drones were hosted by the People’s Liberation Army, which often seeks to directly control operations against Taiwan. .
“There is no evidence that these commercial drones flying over remote islands, including Lion Rock, are under military control,” he said.
Other military experts believe that the Chinese military has tacitly regulated or at least tolerated the flights. Alan Dupont, a former Australian military defense intelligence analyst, said regardless of who sent them, the increasing frequency of drones represented a further step up the escalatory ladder between China and China. and Taiwan.
“This is much more serious than it looks,” Mr. Dupont said.
How Taiwan responds to drones is an important issue going forward. Mr. Dupont said that if Taiwan shot down a military drone – such as the “Twin Scorpion” sent by China on Thursday – it could provide an opportunity for Beijing to make a claim. hostile acts and accused Taiwan of waging war, Mr. Dupont said.
So far, he noted, the Taiwanese military has exercised restraint; even if it takes down the drone, it still follows the standard protocols.
Chang Yan-ting, a retired Taiwan Air Force deputy commander, said soldiers shot down the drone because it flew above military posts, ignored warnings and stayed for more than three minutes.
“We gave it time to fly away,” he said. “The army had no choice but to shoot it down.”
At the height of the Cold War, the islands off Xiamen were a high point of danger between the United States and China. After Mao Zedong shelled in 1958 on Kinmen Island, then known as Quemoy, military commanders in Washington threatened to drop small nuclear bombs in retaliation. President Eisenhower rejected the advice.
But for now, the Taiwanese military can use a softer form of deterrence, said Lee Hsi-min, former chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s armed forces. He suggested putting up signs on the islands criticizing the Chinese leadership, startling China.
The signs will read: “Stand up. All the Chinese people have come to overthrow the dictator Xi Jinping.”