How Taiwan’s New President Should Respond to Chinese Coercion


Every time a Chinese fighter jet crosses the Taiwan Strait’s median line flying faster than the speed of sound, Taiwanese officials have mere minutes to respond. Over the course of 2023, more than 1,700 Chinese aircraft breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, 703 of which crossed the median line. These included fighter jets, bombers, drones, and spy balloons, not to mention the ships and aircraft carriers that have sailed around Taiwan’s waters. Each intrusion and incursion requires a difficult decision.

When he becomes president in May, William Lai Ching-te will be responsible for dealing with these serial intrusions and for deciding the future of Taiwan’s response to Chinese coercion. Indeed, Chinese incursions will likely continue to increase under Lai’s presidency, as Chinese Communist Party officials view him as a leader of “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.” To face this threat, Lai should change the way Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense publicizes Chinese intimidation efforts.



Ideally this should include greater transparency to reduce confusion and stronger explanations for policy modifications, as previous reports released by the defense ministry have changed without a clear rationale. Among other improvements, the defense ministry should use international standards for categorizing Chinese aircraft, modify the timeframes of the daily reports, and provide more specific information on the aerial and naval intrusions around Taiwan.

Escalating Incursions

Since 2020, much of China’s gray zone pressure has centered around flight incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. This is a quasi-official aerial boundary within which some countries require aircraft to identify themselves while operating, and it serves as a buffer beyond a country’s territorial airspace.

In September 2020, the defense ministry began releasing public reports of People’s Liberation Army military aircraft breaching the country’s air defense identification zone. In both August and September of that year, the Chinese military carried out large-scale incursions into the air defense identification zone that included crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait. These two specific instances, which spurred the defense ministry to take public action, occurred in response to visits by Donald Trump administration officials Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach. Before August 2020, Chinese military aircraft had only crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait two times since 1999—in 2019 and February 2020.

After the Krach-induced incursions, Taiwan’s defense ministry issued its first-ever air defense identification zone report on Sept. 16, 2020. Since then, it has released a report every day that a Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The reports were ostensibly meant to amplify this new type of Chinese military coercion against Taiwan. It allowed the Taiwanese and international public to understand the threat in an easily digestible format: a simple map with color-coded flight paths of various aircraft. Whoever looked at a report could see what types of aircraft China sent and how close they were flying to Taiwan. The reports sparked international coverage and the creation of an open-source database cataloging the incursions. Between September 2020 and August 2022, these incursions largely focused on the southwestern section of the zone, closer to the Taiwan-held Dongsha Island in the South China Sea than Taiwan proper.

These incursions vastly expanded after the August 2022 visit to Taiwan by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which resulted in the erasure of the Davis Line, a tacit division of the Taiwan Strait that both Beijing and Taipei generally respected since 1955. The move from focusing on the southwestern part of the zone to the median line of the Taiwan Strait marked a significant escalation on the part of Beijing, which used the Pelosi visit as a pretense to make the change. Since August 2022, it now is rare for a Chinese military aircraft to not cross the median line multiple times per week, whereas before, any sort of median line crossing was a major incident. The reports of 2024 look very different from the original reports from 2020; some of those changes are positive, while most of them are negative.

What’s Changed in the Reports since 2020?

As Beijing’s air defense identification zone incursions have increased in scale since 2020, so too have Taipei’s response to and public reporting of the incidents changed — which have largely been steps backward. Explaining these changes and their rationales shows how Taiwan perceives, and acts on, the evolving Chinese military threat.

In March 2021, Taiwan’s air force changed its response policy. It would no longer intercept every single sortie. It instead would track the Chinese aircraft with surface-to-air missiles and issue radio warnings. The original policy was breaking the defense ministry’s budget: It had spent almost 9 percent of its budget by October 2020 as a result of the intercepts. Taiwan also has a limited number of military aircraft to carry out these tasks, so daily intercepts significantly wear down an already small fleet.

Despite the change to the intercept policy, Taiwan’s defense ministry would still release the reports tracking the aircraft movement. Between March 2021 and January 2024, the reports continued as the number of incursions increased, with sporadic changes. In August 2022, the reports began to include the number of naval vessels sailing around Taiwan. In November 2022, the defense ministry changed the timeframe of the reports from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. on a single day to 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. across two calendar days. In December 2023, they added Chinese surveillance balloons flying into the zone and over Taiwan. However, after the January 2024 presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan, the defense ministry made additional changes to the format and structure of the reports.

Those changes, made on Jan. 16, diminished a previously transparent process by removing the types of aircraft and the approximate flight paths in favor of a zone through which the aircraft flew. The defense ministry addressed the changes without providing much of a rationale by stating, “We hope to let our country’s people understand the current situation we are facing as far as possible, without compromising the source of our intelligence.” Whereas the original reports would outline an approximate flight path of an aircraft (or group of aircraft) with its own specific color, the new structure omits that entirely in favor a large box through which all of the aircraft flew. Under the new format, it is unclear where in the box a specific aircraft flew — we only know that the aircraft flew somewhere inside the box along with others.

Some aspects of the new format are an improvement on the previous system. The defense ministry has now officially articulated the boundary of Taiwan’s de facto air defense identification zone, or the area that is actually enforced. The new reports also include the timeframes of the sorties flown both around and inside the de facto air defense identification zone and note how far the aircraft flew to the closest major city in Taiwan. While the timeframes are wide enough to be almost nonspecific, their inclusion is still an improvement. Providing more specific timeframes for each aircraft’s incursion would provide more clarity. If the defense ministry keeps the improvements from the January 2024 format while bringing back the strongest elements of the old system, understanding and transparency of the military situation around Taiwan will increase substantially.

When it comes to these reports, the defense ministry faces a growing legitimacy issue as the information included changes without warning, obvious policy change, or clear rationale. While the defense ministry reports provide the public with greater insight into the Chinese military threat that Taiwan faces, the ad hoc changes — such as the format of the reports, as well as what sort of information gets included and excluded — create confusion and reduce their usefulness. The changes diminish the veracity of the earlier reports. For example, surveillance balloons flew into relevant areas before December 2023, specifically in February 2022 and again in February 2023. Why did the defense ministry start releasing balloon information in December 2023 without a clear reason? The changes, and discrepancies, make what was previously an easily understood report harder to analyze and create a certain level of doubt regarding the entire threat situation.

Recommendations for Improving the Reports

 After considering the current cross-Strait situation and the issues related to the reports, President-elect Lai and his new administration should work to build upon and improve the system that was created under President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020. Some needed changes are quite straightforward.

Currently, the report timeframe runs across two days; having a report fall across two days is a confusing metric. The timeframe should run from midnight to midnight during one calendar day. The two-day reporting style has at times resulted in double counting across two reports, so changing it to one day (12 a.m. to 12 a.m.) should reduce confusion.

As it stands, Taiwan uses different airframe designators for Chinese military aircraft than the internationally recognized ones. The defense ministry focuses on categorizing the role of the aircraft tracked instead of their specific type. For example, the Y-8Q, an antisubmarine warfare aircraft, is listed as the Y-8 ASW. As the diversity of aircraft flying into the zone has increased, this system has caused uncertainty about which airframes are involved. The defense ministry’s file photos allowed for independent assessments of aircraft types, but those photos confirmed that the same designator was being used for multiple aircraft. The defense ministry should not only return to providing specific information on aircraft types in their reports but also use internationally recognized designators to do so.

The inclusion of naval incursions in the reports was instructive, as it was unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army was only sending aircraft to intimidate Taiwan. However, the reports only provide broad, general information on the number of naval vessels detected. They do not include which types of ships are making the journeys, where the ships are found, how close to Taiwan they sail, if they cross the Taiwan Strait median line, or how long they loiter in a specific area. In this example, the inclusion of the naval incursions with no additional context diminishes any value of that information. The naval element also excludes incursions by the Chinese Coast Guard, which regularly crosses the median line and at times has sailed beyond the 24-nautical-mile boundary, and by the Chinese Maritime Militia. Delineating between formal People’s Liberation Army naval incursions, Chinese Coast Guard law enforcement incursions, and Chinese Maritime Militia activity will also provide greater clarity on the various threats that Taiwan faces from different parts of the Chinese military apparatus.

Beyond these specific changes, the incoming Lai administration should develop a coherent plan and policy for releasing this sort of information to the public, as well as a clear policy on Taiwan’s military response to these incursions. Right now, how Taiwan’s armed forces respond to specific threats is unclear: While we know that the defense ministry stopped the policy of intercepting every single sortie, we do not know under what conditions an intercept occurs, nor do we know the Taiwanese naval response and how it differs between the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese Coast Guard, and Chinese Maritime Militia. From earlier reporting, we know that Taiwan’s coast guard was attacked by illegal Chinese fishing boats on March 16, 2020, March 22, 2020, and Sept. 29, 2023. Are these clashes that rare? Did they halt after 2023?

While Taipei should not necessarily publicly release the specific conditions and actions that would trigger a certain Taiwanese military response, the complete lack of information makes it seem as if the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese Coast Guard, and Chinese Maritime Militia have the ability to operate freely and openly on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Given Taipei’s budgetary constraints vis-à-vis Beijing’s, it is understandable that not every aerial and naval incursion should require a response. However, with Taiwan prioritizing the development of low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles to prepare for the defense of the island from a Chinese military invasion, Taiwan’s military should begin utilizing its newly acquired drones to monitor and record Chinese military, law enforcement, and militia activities in the Taiwan Strait. It also would allow Taiwan to record the incursions and increase its own presence in its air defense identification zone.

The decision to release these reports in September 2020 was a smart policy choice given the Chinese military threat. However, the longer that the reports are released, the more questions have arisen based on known People’s Liberation Army actions as well as changes to the reports. The incoming Lai administration needs to consider how to respond to these threats from Beijing and what it wants the wider public to know. We argue in favor of radical transparency, as it would clarify the nature and scale of the daily threats that Taiwan, its military, and its people face.


Thomas J. Shattuck is a senior program manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative, the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program, as well as a non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.

Benjamin Lewis is an independent defense analyst based in Washington, DC, focused on the People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan security issues. He is a co-founder of PLATracker, a site that monitors Chinese military activities and developments. Follow him on Twitter @OfficialBen_L.

Image: Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force