Chinese aerial incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (IZ) have received a lot of attention since the island’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) began making the data public in September 2020. Understandably, the larger scale incidents, like that of June 15 – the largest thus far, involving 28 aircraft – have generated heated debates about the rationale for the incursions. Recently, in these pages, a former Republic of China Navy captain, Lu Li-Shih, joined this chorus “decoding China’s recent combat drills in the first island chain.”
However, Lu added to the confusion surrounding the issue by directing attention to the KJ-500 airborne early-warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, claiming the type’s presence as the “most intriguing” fact. Instead, we argue that the prominent presence of other special mission aircraft, especially the KQ-200 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (MP-ASW) aircraft deserves more attention in helping us uncover the underlying rationale of Chinese actions in the Southwestern part of Taiwan’s IZ.
Betting on the Wrong “Horse”
The presence of KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft in Taiwan’s southwestern IZ is neither unusual nor unexpected. The aircraft have increasingly become part of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLAN-AF) order of battle since the mid-2010s, addressing a major capability gap. The IISS Military Balance 2021 recorded a total of 25-plus KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft currently in service between the PLAAF and PLAN-AF. Both services operate the type in the Eastern and Southern Theater Commands, facing Taiwan. In comparison, only two years ago the IISS Military Balance 2019 reported fewer than half that number – 11 KJ-500s – in operation between the two services.
The KJ-500 has become an important element in all major PLAAF air exercises, in accordance with Xi Jinping’s insistence on “more realistic combat training” for the service. Thus, the increased presence of KJ-500s sighted within Japan and Taiwan’s IZs, as well as in the South China Sea, should be expected as it is indicative of a natural development in the PLAAF and PLAN-AF’s drive to become modern, “informatized” and “networked” forces. Therefore, we should expect to see KJ-500s become an increasingly normal sight and a critical element of any Chinese air operations or exercises within Taiwan’s IZ, coordinating friendly forces’ actions and providing early warning of any fighter aircraft scrambled to intercept Chinese formations .
Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
KQ-200 MP-ASW and China’s “Anti-Access” Strategy
In addition to the KJ-500 AEW&C, China’s military modernization has focused strongly on filling capability gaps and addressing weaknesses. One well-known capability gap has been the Chinese navy’s lack of capable maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (MP-ASW) aircraft. The PLAN-AF’s answer to this deficiency is built around the KQ-200 MP-ASW aircraft, which is widely deployed currently with both the Eastern and Southern Theater Commands. Importantly, our research indicates that the KQ-200 MP-ASW aircraft has been the most frequent intruder into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s IZ. Out of 192 incursions recorded between September 16, 2020 and July 15, 2021, 131 (68.2 percent) have involved at least one KQ-200 while 12 incursions (6.3 percent) have involved two KQ-200s. Over this period, KQ-200s have flown 143 sorties. Significantly, the KQ-200 MP-ASW has been involved in all 10 large-scale incursions (involving 10 or more sorties) recorded by Taiwan’s MND. In comparison, the KJ-500 AEW&C was involved in only seven of the 10 large-scale incursions and has flown only 19 sorties during the same time period.
Diplomat Brief Weekly Newsletter N Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific. Get the Newsletter
For context, the KQ-200 is also commonly sighted patrolling within Japan’s IZ, demonstrating Beijing’s interest in surveilling foreign naval activity – both surface and sub-surface – around the two most important maritime choke points in the so-called first island chain: the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait.
We argue that the KQ-200 MP-ASW aircraft’s prominent presence in all large-scale formations intruding into the southwestern portion of Taiwan’s IZ on, for example, March 26 and April 12 of this year, likely demonstrated China’s interest to control the first island chain, and its intent to deny foreign navies, in particular that of the U.S., access in any Taiwan Strait conflict scenario.
Moreover, as we argued in our earlier piece for The Diplomat, these missions were likely linked to the simultaneous presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group (CSG) in the vicinity. This can be demonstrated in China’s large aircraft formations entering Taiwan’s IZ on January 24, March 29, and June 15. The MND’s data also shows that the KQ-200s typically loiter farther out at sea than any other aircraft type. Thus, we argue that both the crude flight route data provided by the MND, the known presence of a U.S. CSG, and the composition of each large-scale formation, involving at least one KQ-200 as well as one or more anti-ship missile capable combat aircraft types (i.e., H-6K, JH-7A, and J-16) point to a strong “anti-access” and maritime deterrence focus.
Unlike the Chinese high-visibility “circumnavigation” flights around Taiwan in 2016, 2017, and 2020, which were considered attempts at intimidating and warning the Taiwanese people against electing the Democratic Progressive Party candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, as president, the more recent long-distance missions undertaken by China have only reached as far as past the Bashi Channel and the Western Pacific Ocean. Therefore, we argue that the recent large-scale incursions into Taiwan’s IZ are very different in meaning and rationale to the earlier ”circumnavigation” flights.
In addition to data provided by Taiwan’s MND, our argument can be further corroborated with reports citing Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) sources from 2019, suggesting that Chinese KQ-200 and H-6K aircraft flew through the Miyako Strait and established communications with PLAN vessels already in the Western Pacific in a joint exercise between PLA’s surface and air components. More recently, in April 2021, China’s Global Times reported about a joint air and sea exercise, involving the Liaoning carrier, Type 055 and Type 052D destroyers, and Type 054A frigates, as well as KQ-200 aircraft, among others. The exercise was reportedly a response to U.S. naval “provocations.”
Such exercises and the PLAN’s presence outside the first island chain, in the Western Pacific, have become increasingly common with the modernization and growing “jointness” and confidence of the PLA. However, by using only the data provided by the MND, we can merely observe a single element of possibly much larger exercises. Due to the lack of similar consistent data from, for example, Japan, we are not able to establish whether the equally, if not more, frequent Chinese incursions into Japan’s IZ in the East China Sea and near the Miyako Strait are linked to the incursions observed in the southwestern part of Taiwan’s IZ.
Nevertheless, what we can observe is the prominent role of new and increasingly capable special mission aircraft, and, especially, the KQ-200 MP-ASW in China’s maturing “anti-access” and maritime deterrence construct.