China’s median line breaches suggest repeat of Taiwan ‘beheading’

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A series of recent intrusions, which violate a decades-old tacit agreement between Taiwan and China aimed at reducing the risk of conflict between the two sides, marks Beijing’s latest escalation in military intimidation against Taiwan.

The now routine incursions reflect Beijing’s intention to reset the benchmarks for acceptable military activity in the strait. Analysts say it’s not just provocation, it’s a dress rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan.

And the Biden administration doesn’t have a clear game plan to deter that bullying.

“The middle line is a legal fiction, not a negotiated treaty line… we are stuck because what we consider the status quo was actually Chinese restraint, but now that the restraint is gone and we can no longer send planes to force them across the line,” said Michael Auslin, a leading contemporary Asia scholar at the Hoover Institution.

The White House’s response included sending the USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville guided-missile cruisers to navigate the strait on Sunday. The trip marked “the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.

Chinese incursions through the Middle Line – also known as the Middle Line or Davis line — reflect Beijing’s two-pronged strategy. China wants to normalize its military presence closer and closer to Taiwan as an assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the territory. And he wants to exhaust the response capacity of the Taiwanese armed forces while repeating attack routes designed to cripple the island’s military and government.

“The Chinese continue to try to set a new standard here for activities flying over the center line, sailing above the center line and staying on the other side for longer periods of time,” the carrier said Monday. National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby. “They are trying to raise the temperature. … We have said publicly that we are not going to accept it.

Chinese destroyers followed the US Navy as it sailed through international waters. The People’s Liberation Army “carried out security monitoring and surveillance of the passage of American warships along the route and controlled all movements of American warships,” the spokesperson said on Monday. of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian.

The Biden administration also plans to formally ask Congress to approve an estimated $1.1 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which includes 60 anti-ship missiles and 100 air-to-air missiles to bolster the country’s defenses. island against a possible Chinese attack.

But China has not backed down from the provocation.

“Since August 4, communist forces have continuously interfered in areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait,” Taiwan’s defense ministry said in a statement earlier this month.

The ministry has recorded at least 94 median line violations by the PLA since August 6, although it did not provide details on the type of planes involved or whether they were weaponized and armed .

Taipei made it clear that the incursions marked a dangerous new phase in PLA activity targeting the island by warning that Chinese forces were “simulating an attack on the main island of Taiwan”.

Analysts warn that if these incursions become routine and include trajectories to Taipei, they will enhance Beijing’s military advantage in a possible future PLA attack.

“[Median line crossings] are just one indicator of how China wants to continue projecting its power closer and closer to Taiwan,said Bonny Lin, former country director for China in the office of the secretary of defense and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s starting to normalize these behaviors… [that could climax with] a large-scale military operation aimed at decapitation.

The Middle Line, a relic of the 1954 US-Taiwanese Mutual Defense Treaty, is designed to keep military aircraft on both sides of the strait at a safe distance to avoid miscalculations that could lead to potential conflict at across the strait.

Chinese military aircraft breached the median line just four times between 1954 and 2020. But Beijing ended nearly seven decades of restraint when it responded to Under Secretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to Taipei in September 2020 by launching dozens of planes across the median line over a two-day period.

Following Pelosi’s 7 p.m. visit to Taiwan on August 2-3, the PLA responded with an almost daily wave of military aircraft across the median line. These jets and bombers cross the strait in formations ranging from 5 to 25 planes, crossing the center line and then rapidly reversing course.

The majority of these incursions have focused on areas off the southern and northern tips of the island rather than on inland routes, suggesting that Beijing so far wants to avoid perceptions that it is repeating attacks on the capital of the island and other population centers.

“There had been this unspoken understanding that China was not going to operate on the other side of the median line… [but] they started doing it a few years ago and i think they were waiting for a chance to [ramp up incursions]said Isaac Kardon, assistant professor in the department of strategic and operational research at the China Institute of Maritime Studies at the US Naval War College. “If it wasn’t Pelosi’s visit it would have been something else, but they decided it was time to roll out an operational package. [to signal] “We will operate on the other side of the halfway line, you better get used to it. »

“It is US and Taiwanese separatist forces, not China, that seek to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” Zhao of the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

These incursions surpassed more common PLA incursions into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone. Taiwan’s ADIZ is a vast area that extends into the coastal regions of China’s Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. The middle line is about 50 miles from Taiwan: PLA planes crossing it can reach the coast of Taiwan in less than four minutes – and Taipei just 80 seconds later.

“One of the biggest problems facing the United States is that we need early warning of an impending Chinese attack and if the Chinese always seem ready to attack, we start having difficulty making the difference,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “It’s not that we won’t notice it until the boots land in Taiwan, but the time between the decision and the unambiguous signal sent to us is minimized.”

Beijing has also deployed unarmed surveillance drones as part of its harassment toolkit in Taiwan. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has released several reports in recent days of “civilian drones” hovering over the heavily militarized Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, located just 10 kilometers from the Chinese mainland. Taiwan will exercise its “right of self-defense and counterattack” against Chinese planes, ships and drones that enter its territorial waters, Lin Wen-Huang, deputy chief of the General Staff of Taiwan, warned on Wednesday. for operations and planning.

A three-strike Chinese drone incursion into the Kinmen area on Tuesday prompted Taiwan’s armed forces to fire “flares” to drive them out of the area, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. This follows the release of video footage of an incident last week that showed Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at drones hovering over their Kinmen guardhouse.

The median line breaches are taking their toll on the Taiwanese Armed Forces which are now in constant rapid reaction mode to assess the trajectory and potential threat level of incoming PLA aircraft.

“It could increase the stress on the Taiwan Air Force to track, monitor and respond to them…it’s basically a way to increase daily military pressure on Taiwan,” Mr Taylor Fravel said. , director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute. of Technology. “It is difficult to distinguish whether an aircraft crossing the median line will fire missiles at Taipei, or whether it will turn around and drive away.”

The now routine midline incursions also reflect Beijing’s ambition to reset internationally acceptable benchmarks for the intensity and proximity of Chinese military activity near Taiwan.

“[Beijing’s] The main goal here is to make sure that the middle line no longer exists in people’s minds as a limitation – they want it to mean nothing,” Castro said.

“It is very beneficial for them if they are allowed to engage in routine and constant military operations in the vicinity of Taiwan, without the international community really noticing – the whole strategy is basically to do so no one pays attention to it.”

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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