Tuesday, March 5, 2024

China launches balloon barrage against Taiwan

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A stream of suspected Chinese weather balloons crossed into Taiwan‘s airspace over the weekend in the largest such incursion on record, according to the island’s government.

Taipei’s Defense Ministry, which began publicizing the floating devices in December, said six of them flew over Taiwan proper in the 24 hours to 6 a.m. local time on Sunday, the most in a single day. The balloons were among eight detected in that period, after the same number was discovered in the previous 24 hours, its daily report said.

Chinese warplanes have been operating daily in Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) for over three years. For the last year-and-a-half, they also have regularly crossed the median line. This is the unofficial buffer down the center of the Taiwan Strait, which was meant to check hostilities and was previously respected by both sides.

Both the ADIZ and the median line are illustrated in Newsweek‘s latest graphic. It tracks the paths of 83 balloons Taiwan said it detected from December 7 through February 11, with at least 25 overflying the island’s territory during that time. Their numbers notably surge in mid-January, after Taiwan’s presidential election.

China claims Taiwan as its own, but the mainland’s long-ruling Communist Party has never governed there. Taipei rejects Beijing’s sovereignty claims, and the Taiwanese public shows little interest in the Chinese leadership’s proposed political union across the strait.

Taipei’s reports on the weekend showed it was given no respite by its old Cold War foe, despite the festive Lunar New Year period observed by both sides. High-altitude balloons—measured between 12,000 and 38,000 feet—traveled across the northern and central areas of the island, according to the Defense Ministry’s data.

Analysts so far have no clear read on the purpose of the balloons, although some have noted their approximate flight paths near sensitive military sites. Both on Saturday and Sunday, one or more balloons appeared to float past Taiwan toward Japan’s westernmost inhabited island of Yonaguni, some 70 miles east, on which Tokyo has stationed missile defense units.

The Taiwanese government is officially tight-lipped on the matter beyond its formal assessment that the balloons—all originating from China—are likely weather-monitoring devices. Taipei has accused Beijing of endangering aviation safety, and of deploying the objects as a form of psychological warfare.

A spokesperson for Taiwan’s Defense Ministry told Newsweek that it continually monitors the surrounding sea and airspace “in response to the Chinese Communist Party‘s various military intrusions.”

Last month, a Taiwanese military spokesperson said it would be a waste of ammunition to shoot down the balloons, a move that would likely suit Beijing’s playbook of eliciting a kinetic response.

A U.S.-made E-2K Hawkeye ‘airborne early warning and control’ aircraft taxis on the runway with other Taiwanese air force planes during an exercise at Chihhang Air Base in eastern Taitung County on January 30, 2024….

SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The connection between balloons and spycraft was made one year ago after a Chinese balloon drifted across the continental United States before it was shot down by an American F-22 Raptor, registering the airframe’s first air-to-air kill.

The Pentagon said the dirigible was carrying sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment. China denied the U.S. account and said it was a weather balloon blown astray by strong winds.

China’s Defense Ministry previously denied any knowledge of the balloons around Taiwan, while its Foreign Ministry typically does not respond directly to charges by its equivalent department in Taipei.

Beijing’s only acknowledgement so far came in late January via the Taiwan Affairs Office, an agency in the Chinese government’s cabinet.

“The floating balloons are mostly used for the purposes of people’s livelihood such as meteorological monitoring. They have a long history and are nothing new,” said TAO spokesperson Chen Binhua, who asked Taipei “not to politically hype up such issues.”