Taiwan has observed dozens of Chinese military balloon flights in its airspace in recent years, far more than previously known, adding to concerns that Beijing could be preparing for an attack on the country.
“They come very frequently, the last one just a few weeks ago,” said a senior Taiwanese official. Another person briefed on the matter said such incursions were happening on average once a month.
Previously, Taiwan’s defence ministry had only confirmed one incident in February last year, in which multiple Chinese balloons in four batches loitered over the north of the country.
Other countries in the region, including Japan and the Philippines, have observed balloon incursions into their airspace, but their governments have given little detail.
The revelations of the frequent flights over Taiwan provide new insight into China’s extensive military balloon programme, which has drawn global attention after the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this month off the coast of South Carolina.
The disclosures also come as the People’s Liberation Army has been strengthening capacities it would need to invade Taiwan. Beijing claims the island as part of its territory and has a longstanding threat of annexing it with military force if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely.
Many analysts specialising in cross-Strait relations believe that China’s leader Xi Jinping has not made the decision to go to war. But the PLA’s build-up of missile, air and naval assets, as well as exercises focused on invasion scenarios and larger and more complex air and naval manoeuvres closer to Taiwan have convinced some US military officials that Xi has the goal of being ready for a fight in a matter of years.
Escalating tensions between China and the US have also fuelled concerns that Beijing could resort to force.
Taiwanese government officials said the Chinese balloons observed in Taiwan’s airspace normally fly at about 20,000ft, much lower than the one that traversed the US, and are made from a different material. The US shot down two additional objects over the weekend over North American airspace.
But the Taiwanese officials said the balloons’ dimensions and payload put them outside the scope of ordinary weather balloons allowed to cross other countries’ airspace without prior approval under international law.
According to officials who deal with military and intelligence issues in three Asian countries, the balloons observed over Taiwan were developed by the Equipment Development Department, the division in charge of weapons systems under China’s Central Military Commission, the top military organ which is headed by Xi.
“Some of the balloons are fielded by the PLA Air Force and some by the Rocket Force,” said one Taiwanese official, adding that military aircraft were regularly sent up to observe the balloons. According to people briefed on the matter in Taiwan and one US ally, the balloons have been collecting atmospheric data for use in radar and missile systems.
“All sorts of atmospheric specifics such as air pressure and density at the time can affect the accuracy of a missile after re-entry into the atmosphere, and tiny errors will be magnified a lot because of speed,” said Kitsch Liao, assistant director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think-tank.
He added that the same problem applied to over-the-horizon radar, long-range systems that China needs for operations in the waters and airspace east of Taiwan.
“You need very large amounts of data to feed your algorithm, also because the conditions change in the course of the seasons and can vary from one year to the other,” Liao said. “That’s why you need to keep coming back.”