Tensions Rise Over Straits Air Routes

 - February 11, 2008, 10:40 AM

Mainland China is increasing the pressure on Taiwan’s air defenses. Modernized with more than 250 J-11 fighters (Russian or license-built Sukhoi Su-27/30) and 50 Chinese-designed J-10 interceptors, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is flying combat air patrols up to the middle of the Taiwan Straits. This has been the unofficial dividing line between China and Taiwan for more than 50 years.
The Republic of China Air Force pilots who fly out across the Straits to defend Taiwan’s airspace now face a dilemma. Under pressure from the U.S., Taiwan’s defense policy includes a pledge not to launch a pre-emptive strike against the mainland. That policy extends to airborne engagements, according to a recently retired senior military officer from Taipei. “The mainland fighters are targeting our F-16s and Mirage 2000s with their radars and missiles. Our pilots are getting warnings from their defensive systems, but have strict instructions not to fire first,” he told AIN.
China has also upgraded its air defense radars. A senior PLAAF officer said recently that the network’s detection
and surveillance capability was “very close” to those deployed in developed countries and could also assist Chinese forces in offensive operations. The senior U.S. military officer in Japan said recently that it is now “difficult, if not impossible” for F-15s and F-16s to penetrate China’s airspace. Beijing has unilaterally declared a new air defense identification zone.
Now China has approved a new airway for airliners flying between Guangzhou/Hong Kong and Shanghai that would
be very close to the unofficial dividing line. It would ease the increasing congestion on existing inland airways, but also complicate Taiwan’s air defense. The island’s government has objected to the new route, and the potential for a serious or even fatal incident is real. The U.S. is trying to mediate between Taipei and Beijing. Taiwan cannot negotiate the dispute itself through International Civil Aviation Organization because China has ensured that the island republic is excluded from all such international organizations.    –C.P.