When 28 Chinese warplanes streaked through the skies around Taiwan on Tuesday — the largest such incursion this year — they followed a pattern that has generated alarm among U.S. and Taiwanese military planners.
Some of the People’s Liberation Army planes, including bombers, fighter jets and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, flew east from the Chinese coast around the southern tip of Taiwan. The rest broke off and briefly darted further south toward tiny Pratas Island in the South China Sea before turning back.
The PLA has flown close to the atoll — uninhabited except for a garrison of Taiwanese marines and coast guard officers — once a week on average since Sept. 16, when the Taiwanese Defense Ministry began releasing detailed data. If all incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense-identification zone between Pratas and the Chinese mainland are included, the patrols have become an almost daily occurrence.
The exercises signal Beijing’s displeasure with the democratically elected government in Taipei and its successful effort to court greater U.S. support, as seen by a mention in the Group of Seven communique this week. In response to China’s moves, President Joe Biden’s administration has stepped up surveillance flights near Pratas, raising the risk of a confrontation or clash between two of the world’s most powerful militaries.
The Chinese focus on Pratas serves several aims of President Xi Jinping, highlighting Taiwan’s vulnerability to attack while probing its defenses. The strategy also tests the limits of Washington’s security commitment, and whether it’s willing to go to war to defend largely vacant reefs hundreds of miles from the nearest American base.