China sends drones over Taiwan island hours after Pelosi trip

Lawrence Chung, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 05 2022 03:36 AM | Updated as of Aug 05 2022 08:54 AM

Chinese military drones were spotted over Taipei-controlled island hours after Pelosi visit

An unmanned aerial vehicle EPA-EFE
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Caihong CH-4 performs during the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China, September 29, 2021. EPA-EFE/ALEX PLAVEVSKI/FILE

The Chinese military’s decision to send drones over Quemoy island has left Taiwan facing a dilemma over how to respond.

Military observers said trying to shoot them down increased the risk of a conflict with Beijing as tensions rise following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week.

On the other hand they are believed to have been used to gather intelligence about Taiwan’s military strength and preparedness on the island, which is just 3.2km (2 miles) from the mainland city of Xiamen, and a failure to act could encourage more operations in future.

The People’s Liberation Army drones were spotted flying over Quemoy, which is also known as Kinmen, on Wednesday night – hours after Pelosi left Taipei for South Korea as part of her Asia tour and the night before a series of live-fire exercises around the coast of Taiwan island started.

Troops in Quemoy fired flares to warn the drone away and maintained combat readiness, the Taiwanese defence ministry said in a statement.

Major General Chang Zone-sung from Kinmen defence command told Reuters the drones came in a pair and were seen twice at around 9pm and 10pm.

“We immediately fired flares to issue warnings and to drive them away. After that, they turned around. They came into our restricted area and that’s why we dispersed them,” he said.

“We have a standard operating procedure. We will react if they come in,” Chang said, adding that the alert level there remained “normal”.

Chang said he believed the drones were intended to gather intelligence on Taiwan’s security deployment in its outlying islands.

No mainland military aircraft have flown over Quemoy since the 1950s, when the PLA began bombing and shelling the island in a campaign that lasted several years.

Beijing, which sees Taiwan as its part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to bring it under its control, repeatedly warned Pelosi – the second in line to the presidency and a long-time critic of Beijing – against visiting and vowed to take forceful measures if she did.

It announced six large-scale live-fire drills encircling the island shortly after Pelosi’s arrival. The 72-hours war games, which began at noon on Thursday, are the largest of their kind and include missile tests.

Observers said in addition to gathering intelligence about the situation in Quemoy, including whether people there felt nervous about the drills, the flyovers were meant as an early test of Taiwan’s response to the war games.

“It is obviously to test the response of our troops,” said Chang Yen-ting, a retired lieutenant air force general, said, adding that firing flares had no effect on drones.

“Our forces there should take them down instead of firing flares to warn them off as the flyover violated our sovereignty.

“It will only encourage the PLA to do this from time to time, eventually making the flyover a routine practice,” he said, adding that this would cause the public to lose confidence in the military and troops to lose confidence in their superiors.

Fu Qianshao, a retired air force armament expert in Beijing, said: “Obviously they did not dare to hit the drones and this means we could use our drones to fly over Taiwan’s outlying islands,” he said, adding that drones from the mainland could eventually fly over Taiwan itself and this could become a regular practice.

Chieh Chung, a senior researcher at National Policy Foundation, a think tank affiliated with Taiwan’s main opposition party Kuomintang, said the flyover was a part of a pressure campaign against the island.

“When our government first declared our territorial boundary and the 12-nautical mile [22.2km] territorial waters, it did not officially include Quemoy and Matsu [another Taiwanese-held island close to mainland China],” he said.

“So even if the drones do not actually land on Quemoy or attack our facilities, it could create unintended conflict and escalate tensions if we take them down.”

He said one way to avoid such conflict was for the military to employ hi-tech devices to interfere with the drones’ electronic systems, causing them to malfunction. This way, there is nothing the PLA can do or complain about,” Chieh said.

He also said that drones are not that effective unless being used on the eve of an attack. “After all, the PLA is well aware of the topography and military condition of Quemoy, given its years of spying and proximity to Quemoy,” Chieh said.

Additional reporting by Amber Wang

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