After conducting two strategic bomber flights around Taiwan in late 2016, Beijing in the last two months has significantly stepped up its operational tempo with at least another five flights circumnavigating the island, the latest of which occurred on Aug. 12. An easy explanation for this unprecedented display of military force is that China is more routinely employing the Xian H-6K long-range bomber to ratchet up pressure on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen due to her refusal to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus.” The consensus is allegedly an agreement on “One China,” but has differing interpretations in China and Taiwan. This view, however, is overly simplistic. Coercing Taiwan was likely an important part of Beijing’s calculus, but the core objective appears to be strengthening the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) conventional strategic deterrence. China seeks to enhance the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) capabilities and signal Beijing’s will to defend its territorial claims against the U.S. and its regional allies and partners, especially Taiwan and Japan.
A Feature, Not a Bug
Chinese bomber activities throughout the region — numbering at least 22 separate H-6K aircraft flights since March 2015, according to our estimate — are the latest manifestation of top leaders’ longstanding efforts to enhance the PLAAF’s airpower capabilities. The ultimate goal is to deter U.S. intervention in a regional conflict. In 1999, then-President Jiang Zemin instructed the PLAAF to “prepare to struggle to build a powerful, modernized air force that is simultaneously prepared for offensive and defensive operations,” giving the service an offensive strike mission. Five years later, the PLAAF officially incorporated this guidance into its first strategic concept document, with an added emphasis on the need to integrate aerospace forces to carry out operations in accordance with Beijing’s strategic goals. During a visit to PLAAF headquarters in April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping endorsed the PLAAF’s vision to become a “strategic air force,” and that same month PLAAF commander Ma Xiaotian gave an important speech calling for the service to take a more active role in maritime security. In February 2015, Xi visited the 36th Bomber Division in Shaanxi Province. Images released afterwards by state media depicted Xi sitting in the cockpit of an H-6K bomber. Bomber flights commenced the following month.
The PLAAF has responded by conducting longer-ranging and increasingly complex over-water air combat operations. Before it started circumnavigating Taiwan, the PLAAF concentrated on achieving the major milestone of breaking through the First Island Chain into the Western Pacific. It did this several times, through both the Miyako Strait (between Okinawa and Taiwan) and the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and the Philippines). Building on this momentum, the PLAAF conducted several bomber flights in 2016 — labeled “combat air patrols” — over disputed features in the South China Sea, including Fiery Cross Reef, Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef, and Woody Island. Other bomber flights have been touted in Chinese defense circles as enhancing PLAAF coordination with the PLA Navy — another major milestone underscoring an increasingly joint Chinese military.
Recent bomber flights around Taiwan represent the most concerted training regimen yet aimed at improving Chinese airpower. Indeed, the operational tempo of these summer flights near Taiwan is unprecedented, with at least seven flights since July 13 alone (see table below). Moreover, the flights in November and December 2016 appear to have incorporated at least six different types of supporting aircraft, including intelligence/reconnaissance, early warning, fighter, and electronic warfare aircraft. These bomber flights provide important operational training for PLAAF crews on a range of skills that can only be cultivated in this combat-realistic situation, such as pilot endurance for distance flights (at 10 hours, flights to the South China Sea likely push the H-6K’s limits), varying weather conditions over water, navigational challenges, interaction with foreign aircraft (Japanese and Taiwan fighter jets intercept flights near their airspace), and signals intelligence collection.
Remarking on the operational benefit for the PLAAF from such flights, Alexander Huang, Chairman of Taiwan’s Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies said, “China is not only applying pressure on Taiwan but is also checking the reaction of the Taiwanese air force’s aircraft and radar.” This is supported by the fact that PLAAF Y-8 EW aircraft circumnavigated Taiwan four times in August, which could help China learn more about Taiwan’s east coast defenses. Huang added that the flights are “also intended to continuously show [China’s] power to the United States and Japan,” and other Taiwanese analysts further suggested China views eastern Taiwan as the focal point for stopping U.S. intervention.
As the decadeslong effort to enhance China’s airpower shows, bomber flights cannot be seen solely as a response to recent Taiwanese behavior. Their longer-term goal is to display China’s capabiilities and resolve. Some of the flights in 2015, for example, traversed through Beijing’s East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Announced by Beijing in 2013, this ADIZ originated as a response to the ongoing row with Japan over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Shortly after the bomber flight in November 2015, a Chinese military commentator noted that “we are not only able to safeguard the East China Sea ADIZ, but also able to fly beyond the First Island Chain.” Last month, China’s Ministry of National Defense doubled-down on bomber flights near Japanese airspace by stating that they were indeed “legal and proper,” and for an extra touch added that “[Japan] will feel better after getting used to such drills.”
Similarly, in the South China Sea, PLAAF combat air patrols in the summer of 2016 were largely in response to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against Beijing. According to the main commentator on PLAAF activities in the South China Sea, these combat air patrols enabled Beijing to deter or strike “large formations” in the water that were “provoking China.” The PLAAF has also slowly regularized flights through the South China Sea and into the Pacific Ocean to signal strategic resolve to defend its claims against the United States in the region.
Resolve to Taipei and Washington
China’s Ministry of National Defense has not made explicit reference to the fact that its bombers have flown around Taiwan, and recently downplayed such flights as “routine training.” However, one can infer that flights on the eastern side of the island serve as another challenge to the entry of U.S. forces into a potential China-Taiwan conflict. Beijing clearly intends to make it difficult for Washington to save Taiwan: The PLAAF can conduct maritime strikes against oncoming U.S. naval forces, as well as launch the CJ-10 long-range land attack cruise missile at standoff distance against U.S. forces as far away as Guam. Indeed, Dean Cheng wrote in War on the Rocks in 2015 that bomber flights in the Pacific should be a “wake-up call” to U.S. military planners. This warning, though written before the PLAAF had conducted any flights around Taiwan, is more salient today than ever, since China’s ability to operate off Taiwan’s eastern shores gives it additional geographic advantages against Guam. Moreover, these flights suggest the PLA assumes it will be able to establish air dominance over or even past Taiwan in a conflict, or use international airspace to get past Taiwan for a first strike against regional targets.
Finally, Beijing’s decision to fly bombers near or around Taiwan is undoubtedly also aimed at Taiwan itself — meant to coerce and embarrass the Tsai administration. China has already sought to punish Tsai for refusing to recognize the 1992 Consensus by stealing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, employing “united front” tactics to drive a wedge between the Taiwanese people and Tsai, and restricting mainland tourism to the island to harm the economy. Now, with bomber flights, Beijing probably believes it is adding another critical pressure point to the Tsai administration. The psychological impact of these activities is only magnified when the PLA employs other new assets at its disposal, such as when Beijing sent its new carrier, the Liaoning, through the strait the day before one of the bomber flights in July.
These flights have led to a public messaging contest between Beijing and Taipei. To drive home its ability to fly around Taiwan at will, the PLAAF has on many occasions used its Weibo account to share photos of its H-6K bombers allegedly flying within visible range of Taiwan’s Jade Mountain. The photos send a message both to the Chinese public, to display the fruits of Xi’s military modernization, and to Taiwan’s citizens, to highlight the inability of their government to stop such flights. Taiwanese media also reported on a possible effort by China to weaken Taiwan’s will through psychological warfare. When two H-6Ks entered Taiwan’s ADIZ during the July 20 flight, the Chinese pilots said they and the Taiwanese were the “same people,” an illustration of Chinese claims to Taiwan. The Taiwanese government denied the incident.
In an attempt to reassure its public, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense released a photo after the second bomber flight in July purportedly showing an Indigenous Defense Fighter intercepting an H-6K. The fighter was carrying what was later revealed to be a training missile. The Ministry also said, “Taiwan is not going to take any action that could start a war with China, but it is also not going to back down from any threats,” adding that if Chinese aircraft violate Taiwan’s ADIZ again “the nation would safeguard its airspace and marine areas based on its rules of engagement for emergency situations in wartime.” On the same day, the Taiwan Air Force also posted a video showing its fighters conducting training on a shortened runway, a message to China that bomber strikes would not be enough to force Taiwan’s capitulation.
Taiwanese commentary portrayed the flights as part of China’s campaign of pressure against the island as well as part of the larger U.S.-Chinese military competition in Asia. One expert framed the flights against the backdrop of Xi’s upcoming 19th Party Congress, where he is expected to further consolidate power and thus must ensure no disruptions by Taiwan: “China had to use its military force to show it means business when telling Taiwan not to push its limits and do anything provocative.” Like North Korea, Beijing is leveraging the technical demands for testing its military programs for their full political advantage. In this case, restraining Taiwan’s ability to act as spoiler before Xi’s big day is the short-term political benefit flowing from the practical need to train its bomber crews in service of the long-term goal of improving the PLAAF’s ability to conduct conventional strategic deterrence.
Wanted: A Regional Response
PLAAF strategic thinkers have apparently taken a cue from America’s and Russia’s recent employment of bombers for strategic signaling purposes. Beijing has cited international law and norms to justify its new flights, echoing U.S. freedom of navigation, but with Chinese characteristics. One of the key concerns is whether Beijing will abide by high standards of professionalism during these operations, as Chinese pilots reportedly still occasionally fail to comply with U.S.-China agreements for air-to-air encounters. Chinese bomber pilots have discussed being intercepted by foreign aircraft, unnamed but possibly from the United States, on flights in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, so the potential for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation is real.
To prevent such an undesirable outcome, the United States and its partners could flag concern over the bomber flights in military-to-military dialogues with Chinese interlocutors. In particular, Washington might gain the most traction by working with partners in the region to adopt their own versions of the U.S.-China September 2015 air-to-air encounters annex under the bilateral Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters. Though negotiations between Beijing and Tokyo for a similar mechanism have been ongoing since 2012, they have not reached a formal agreement and there are no indications of progress with other countries.
The United States could also work with allies and partners to devise a strategy for dealing with these provocations. One effective means of discouraging flights could be to conduct joint intercepts with Japan (doing so with Taiwan would be fraught with difficulties due to political sensitivities) to reduce the provocative nature of Chinese bomber flights. Another might be to enhance transparency about the flights. Only Japan consistently releases details about Chinese flights, and according to one report, Taiwan underreports them. A public accounting of PLAAF activity would reduce the shock and awe factor, demonstrate governments’ commitment to addressing the flights, and improve public awareness of assertive Chinese behavior in the region.
Regardless, Beijing believes it has much to gain by continuing these flights, specifically in the areas of training and signaling resolve vis-à-vis the United States and Japan, as a way of defending territorial claims. Therefore, we assess that PLAAF bomber flights are almost certain to continue and perhaps even ramp up. Indeed, in July, PLAAF spokesperson Shen Jinke said, “no matter what obstruction we encounter… no matter who flies up to meet us, the Chinese Air Force will still go and conduct many flights.” Going forward, the key objective should be to determine how the United States and Asian partners might mitigate the negative effects of Chinese bomber flights, rather than attempting to stop them in the first place.
Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga is a Policy Analyst, Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst, and Logan Ma is a research assistant at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.