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China is subtly increasing military pressure on Taiwan. Here's how

A fighter plane takes off for patrol and military exercises around Taiwan carried out by the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, April 8.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
A fighter plane takes off for patrol and military exercises around Taiwan carried out by the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, April 8.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — There is an ominous new normal in the Taiwan Strait, the narrow strip of water between Taiwan and China.

Beijing has long considered self-governed Taiwan as part of China and has threatened to force it to "unify" with the mainland.

But over the past year, Beijing has been stepping up military pressure on Taiwan, while stopping short of an outright invasion. China has been sending ships and planes to encircle Taiwan and mounting more sophisticated military drills simulating a blockade of the island. In September, Taiwan's defense ministry counted a record number of Chinese fighter planes — 103 warplanes to be exact — flying in airspace around Taiwan in just one day.

Security experts call this "gray zone" tactics, a strategy of intimidation and daily harassment designed to gradually wear Taiwan down, without drawing the United States and its Asian allies, like Japan and South Korea, into a wider conflict.

Here's what you need to know about China's gray zone tactics.

Daily military incursions are increasing around Taiwan

Taiwan's Constitution, enacted in 1947 by its former Chinese Nationalist rulers who fought a civil war with China's Communist forces, still officially recognizes the authorities in Taipei as the legitimate government representing not just Taiwan, but also mainland China and some nearby territories.

And now, decades after its transitioning to a democracy in the 1990s, Taiwan still maintains an "air defense identification zone," or ADIZ, that's monitored by its military and reaches far into China's borders. The ADIZ is an informal area Taiwan's defense ministry monitors but is not an official, internationally recognized boundary and is far larger than Taiwan's territorial air space as defined by international law.

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Since last year, China has been sending near-daily military sorties that dart in and out of that air defense zone.

Robin Hsu is among a group of Taiwanese military enthusiasts who obsessively track this signal communication Chinese pilots leave as their planes or ships enter the air defense zone each day. This summer, NPR met with Hsu outside a Taiwanese air base, where he already intercepted Chinese pilot chatter from six separate incursions.

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Hsu worries there will be miscommunication, a misfire even, between militaries that could spiral into conflict.

"Gray zone" tactics

Chinese military activity around Taiwan has been increasing since the summer of 2022, when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. It was a trip that infuriated leaders in Beijing, who claims Taiwan as its own and opposes other countries sending high-level official visits there. Pelosi's trip also prompted China to look for ways to up the ante over Taiwan.

"The PRC has been committed to push the envelope in terms of what is [an] acceptable level of the use of force underneath open war," says Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy at King's College London, using an acronym for China.

Patalono says China prefers to use gray zone tactics like military and economic coercion to intimidate Taiwan and attempt to influence upcoming January presidential elections there. These tactics include sending planes or banning Taiwanese goods to punish its farmers.

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In other words, no hot war, no invasion, but there is a constant reminder that China has its sights on Taiwan. Some fear China's gray zone tactics are practice for a real invasion.

"[Chinese forces] can practice their military requirement as they need, and even they can test the response capability from the Taiwanese military," says Lee Hsi-ming, a retired Taiwanese admiral and a former defense chief.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is limited in how it can respond to Chinese pressure. For example, Lee says, every time a Chinese military plane or ship gets too close, Taiwan has to scramble its own jets or ships, and China just has way more of everything. Plus, Lee says, Taiwan doesn't want to make things worse: "Because we don't want [to] escalate the tension, and in order to maintain our morale, then we have to passively respond to this kind of gray-zone aggression."

Lee Hsi-ming, retired admiral and former head of the Taiwanese military, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in Taipei, Taiwan, Dec. 8, 2020.
Ann Wang / Reuters
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Reuters
Lee Hsi-ming, retired admiral and former head of the Taiwanese military, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in Taipei, Taiwan, Dec. 8, 2020.

Taiwan, with 23 million citizens, has a fraction of the military budget and fighting force that China has, with over 1.4 billion citizens. Taiwan has about 169,000 active duty forces and 2 million in reserves, though critics say they are poorly trained. China has the largest active duty personnel numbers in the world, with over2 million.

Wear and tear on Taiwan

China's frequent incursions are already straining Taiwan's pilots, who are among the island's first line of defense against China.

"You have only about six minutes to scramble, and there are staff on call awaiting orders at all times to make an emergency takeoff," says Taiwanese pilot Hou Shengjun, describing the regimen his fellow pilots are on to intercept Chinese planes. Hou himself is trained to fly the U.S.-made F-16 fighter plane.

These constant sorties are increasing Taiwan's defense costs and tiring out pilots. And analysts believe this will only continue, especially in the run-up to Taiwan's January presidential elections.

"Opinion or perspective from Taiwanese nationals might affect the government's policy, and [the] government's policy might also affect U.S.-Taiwan-China — the triangle relationship," says Chin-Kuei Tsui, a politics professor at Taiwan's National Chung Hsing University. He explains, through these daily maneuvers, China is trying to scare Taiwanese voters into being more pro-China.

So far, the gray-zone tactics seem to be having the opposite effect in Taiwan.

A poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation shortly after China's military drills following Pelosi's visit found over half of Taiwanese supported the visit despite the Chinese military response. Just over a third who were opposed to her visit. A more recent survey, done by the Taipei-based research institution Academia Sinica, found just under 10% of Taiwanese believed China to be a trustworthy partner.

Three military boats from Taiwan's Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol Unit patrol the Matsu Islands on April 9.
Jack Moore / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Three military boats from Taiwan's Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol Unit patrol the Matsu Islands on April 9.

But China could escalate, experts say, by conducting more frequent and lengthy military drills around the island and forming an effective blockade.

That is why enormous responsibility now lies on the shoulders of pilots like 26-year-old Wendy Wen, who flies the Taiwan-designed fighter plane, the Indigenous Defense Fighter: "Of course it is a tiring job. We have sentries running 24-hour shifts keeping watch."

She says the air force is concentrating on recruiting more young pilots. "We hope more people join the air force in order to give our existing pilots more time to rest and recover, and we need to recover in order to fly longer and farther," she says — because Taiwan is trying to figure out how to outlast a bigger opponent.


NPR's John Ruwitch contributed research from California. Emily Feng reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Connie Hanzhang Jin created the graphics in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 7, 2024 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of the map misidentified the Matsu and Kinmen Islands.
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Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Connie Hanzhang Jin
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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