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Why Is China Sending So Many Warplanes Near Taiwan?

A record 56 Chinese planes entering Taiwan’s air identification zone has raised fears of invasion, but are those fears justified?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Military personnel prepare to cover a Chengdu Aircraft J-10C.
Military personnel prepare to cover a Chengdu Aircraft J-10C for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in Zhuhai, China, on Sept. 27. Noel Celis/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: China sends record number of military planes into Taiwan’s buffer zone, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ministers meet in Paris, and U.S.-China trade talks plan to resume.

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China’s Taiwan Flights Stoke Tensions

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: China sends record number of military planes into Taiwans buffer zone, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ministers meet in Paris, and U.S.-China trade talks plan to resume.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

China’s Taiwan Flights Stoke Tensions

China’s military planes have been busy over the last few days flying sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in a seemingly escalating pattern. On Friday, 38 planes flew into the area—a new record. On Saturday, 39 planes flew into the zone. And on Monday, another record: 56 planes in a 24-hour period.

Responding to a U.S. statement saying the moves were both “provocative” and “destabilizing,” China’s foreign ministry accused the United States of creating its own tensions through its arms sales to Taiwan and by sending U.S. navy ships through the Taiwan Strait.

So what is China up to?

Provocation or pestering? To understand the scale of what is going on near Taiwan’s waters, the first thing to understand is an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) is not the same as national airspace. An ADIZ is like a buffer zone that extends beyond the 12-nautical-mile extension from national borders that are considered sovereign airspace under international law.

Taiwan’s ADIZ, which extends more than 200 miles into mainland China at its northwest point, is just one of many overlapping national air zones in the East China Sea. Put simply, flying into an ADIZ isn’t provocative in and of itself, but the frequency with which China has been doing it has raised fears that the flights could be a prelude to an invasion of the island, which Beijing claims as its own territory.

“All that theyre doing is ratcheting up numbers. They’re not, in my view, doing anything that is fundamentally different from what they have been doing in the recent past,” Bonnie Glaser, a cross-strait relations expert at the German Marshall Fund, told Foreign Policy.

Tiring out Taiwan? Glaser noted that outside of military training, the flights serve three purposes: They tire out Taiwan’s air force pilots who must constantly scramble to intercept, they demoralize the Taiwanese population while stoking nationalism at home, and they send a message of deterrence to the United States.

“All of this diplomatic, military, and economic coercion is really aimed at inducing this sense of psychological despair among the [Taiwanese] people that China is just so powerful that they just give up,” Glaser said. “I think over time that is a goal that they seek to achieve—they would prefer to win without fighting.”

If, as some have suggested, the increase in flights is due to a Chinese military training cycle coming to an end, the numbers should decrease in the coming days. Meanwhile, the United States is focused on internationalizing the dispute to dilute the image of a purely U.S.-China struggle over Taiwan, a strategy exemplified by the recent transit of a British warship through the Taiwan Strait in September.

Taiwan has urged an end to the flights, saying on Monday it had a “full grasp of the communist militarys movements and have made appropriate responses,” adding it was cooperating “with friendly countries to jointly contain the Chinese communists malicious provocations.”

What We’re Following Today

OECD meets in Paris. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states gather in Paris today for a two-day meeting with the focus on “building a green and inclusive future.” Both U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend the event, which the United States co-chairs alongside South Korea and Luxembourg.

The location also provides an opportunity for more U.S. damage control after the so-called AUKUS agreement. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is set to hold “in-depth talks” with Blinken to “identify the steps that will be needed to reestablish confidence between our two countries,” a French foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Facebook under the microscope. Facebook is again in the spotlight today following a widespread outage that took down its servers as well as its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Instagram. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security following leaks of internal studies that showed the social media giant was aware of the psychological damage its product causes.

Haugen’s leaks formed the basis of a Wall Street Journal reporting series that also found the company failed to adequately address drug cartel and human trafficking activity on the platform and may have helped incite violence against ethnic minorities in Ethiopia.

Keep an Eye On

U.S.-China trade talks. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Monday she would seek to restart trade talks with China and would continue to push China to fulfill its side of the Phase One deal agreed on in January 2020.

In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies outlining the Biden administrations trade policy toward China, Tai said former U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariffs would remain in place, but a mechanism for U.S. companies to seek exemptions from the tariffs would reopen. In the Phase One deal, China agreed to purchase an extra $200 billion worth of U.S. goods and services by 2021. China is so far only 62 percent of the way to that goal, partially due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

Europe’s leaders in Slovenia. European heads of state and government meet today in Brdo, Slovenia, for an evening meeting ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit on Wednesday. European leaders are expected to discuss the European Union’s policy toward China for the first time since the body imposed sanctions on Chinese officials in March over its treatment of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, China. That action led to retaliation from Beijing, effectively pausing an investment pact agreed on between the two powers.

Odds and Ends

Russia will achieve victory in the race to film a movie in space today as it prepares to send an actor and a director to the International Space Station for a 12-day shoot. Following months of training, actor Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko will blast off from a launch station in Kazakhstan alongside cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov to shoot scenes for the upcoming movie Challenge about a surgeon who must travel to the space station to save a crew member. The Russian project edges out one led by NASA and actor Tom Cruise, who is set to enter low earth orbit to shoot scenes for a future production later this month.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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