China’s median line violations suggest Taiwan ‘decapitation’ rehearsal

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Chinese military aircraft are ramping up pressure on Taiwan with near-daily incursions across the halfway point in the waters between China and the self-governing island.

And the White House is watching nervously as Beijing tests Washington’s resolve to defend Taiwan.

China has signaled that it has no intention of dialing back its increasingly aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait that it launched in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei earlier this month.

A spate of recent intrusions, which violate a decades-old tacit agreement between Taiwan and China designed to reduce the risk of conflict between the two sides, mark Beijing’s latest escalation in military intimidation against Taiwan.

The now-routine incursions reflect Beijing’s intent to reset benchmarks for acceptable military activity in the Strait. Analysts say it’s not just provocation — it’s a dress rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan.

And the Biden administration has no clear game plan to deter that intimidation.

“The median line is a legal fiction, not a negotiated treaty line … we’re painted into a corner because what we consider the status quo was actually Chinese self-restraint, but now that the self-restraint is gone and we can’t send up planes to force them back across the line,” said Michael Auslin, distinguished research fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution.

The White House response has included dispatching the guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville to navigate the Strait on Sunday. That voyage signaled U.S. “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.

The Chinese incursions across the median line — also known as the center line or Davis Line — reflect a two-prong strategy by Beijing. China wants to normalize its military presence increasingly closer to Taiwan as an assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the territory. And it wants to wear down the response capacity of Taiwan’s armed forces while rehearsing attack routes designed to cripple the island’s military and government.

“The Chinese are continuing to try to basically set a new normal here for activity overflying the median line, sailing over the median line and staying over on the other side at longer periods of time,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday. “They’re trying to turn up the temperature. … We’ve said publicly, we’re not going to accept it.”

Chinese destroyers shadowed the U.S. Navy as it sailed through international waters. The People’s Liberation Army “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage in the whole course, and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday.

The Biden administration also plans to formally ask Congress to approve an estimated $1.1 billion arms sale to Taiwan that includes 60 anti-ship missiles and 100 air-to-air missiles to bolster the island’s defenses against a potential Chinese attack.

But China hasn’t stepped back from provocation.

“Since August 4, the Communist forces have not stopped intruding in the areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait,” Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement earlier this month.

The ministry has recorded at least 94 PLA violations of the median line since Aug. 6, though it did not provide details of the type of aircraft involved or whether they were weapons-capable and armed.

Taipei made clear that those incursions marked a dangerous new phase in PLA activity targeting the island by warning that Chinese forces “were simulating an attack on Taiwan’s main island.”

Analysts warn that if those incursions become routine and include trajectories toward Taipei, they’ll bolster Beijing’s military advantage in a possible future PLA attack.

“[Median line crossings] are just one indicator of how China wants to continue to project its power closer and closer to Taiwan,” said Bonny Lin, former country director for China at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It starts normalizing these behaviors … [that could climax with] a large-scale military operation that seeks decapitation.”

The median line, a relic of the 1954 U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty, is designed to keep military aircraft from both sides of the Strait at a safe distance to prevent miscalculations that could lead to potential cross-Strait conflict.

Chinese military aircraft violated the median line only four times between 1954 and 2020. But Beijing ended almost seven decades of restraint when it responded to Under Secretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to Taipei in September 2020 by launching dozens of aircraft across the median line over a two-day period.

In the wake of Pelosi’s 19-hour Taiwan visit on Aug. 2-3, the PLA has responded with a near daily surge of military aircraft across the median line. Those jets and bombers cross the Strait in formations ranging in size from five to 25 aircraft, crossing the median line and then quickly reversing course.

The majority of those incursions have focused on areas off the island’s southern and northern tips rather than inland routes, suggesting that Beijing so far wants to avoid perceptions that it’s rehearsing attacks on the island’s capital and other population centers.

“There had been this tacit understanding that China wasn’t going to be operating on the other side of the median line … [but] they started doing so a couple of years ago and I think they were waiting for a chance to [ramp up incursions],” said Isaac Kardon, assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. “If it wasn’t the Pelosi visit, it would have been something else, but they decided this is the time to roll out an operational package [to signal] ‘We’re going to be operating on the other side of the median line, you’d better get used to it.’”

“It is the U.S. and Taiwan separatist forces, not China, that seeks to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” the Foreign Ministry’s Zhao said Tuesday.

Those incursions have surpassed the more routine PLA incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Taiwan’s ADIZ is a massive area that extends into coastal regions of China’s Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. The median line is roughly 50 miles from Taiwan: PLA aircraft that cross it can reach Taiwan’s coastline in under four minutes — and Taipei just 80 seconds later.

“One of the biggest issues the United States faces is that we need early warning of an impending Chinese attack and if the Chinese always look like they’re poised to attack, we start to have difficulties telling the difference,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “It’s not that we won’t notice until boots land in Taiwan, but the amount of time between decision and unambiguous signal to us is minimized.”

Beijing has also rolled out unarmed surveillance drones as part of its Taiwan harassment toolkit. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has issued several reports in recent days of “civilian drones” buzzing the heavily militarized Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, which lies only six miles from the Chinese mainland. Taiwan will exercise its “right to self-defense and counter-attack” against Chinese aircraft, ships and drones that enter its territorial waters, Lin Wen-Huang, deputy chief of Taiwan’s general staff for operations and planning, warned Wednesday.

An incursion of three sorties of Chinese drones in the Kinmen area on Tuesday prompted Taiwanese armed forces to fire “warning flares” to chase them out of the area, Taiwan’s Defense ministry said Wednesday in a statement. That follows the release of video footage of an incident last week that showed Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at drones hovering over their Kinmen guard post.

The median line violations are taking a toll on Taiwanese armed forces that are now in a constant quick reaction mode to evaluate the trajectory and potential threat level of incoming PLA aircraft.

“It could increase stress on the Taiwanese Air Force to track, monitor and respond to them … this is a way of basically increasing the daily military pressure on Taiwan,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s hard to distinguish if an airplane crossing the median line is going to be launching missiles against Taipei, or if it’s going to turn around and go back.”

The now-routine median line incursions also reflect Beijing’s ambition to reset the internationally acceptable benchmarks for the intensity and proximity of Chinese military activity near Taiwan.

“[Beijing’s] main goal here is to make it so the median line no longer exists in people’s minds as a limitation — they want it to mean nothing,” Castro said.

“It’s very beneficial for them if they’re allowed to engage in routine and constant military operations in the vicinity of Taiwan, without the international community really noticing — the whole strategy is to basically make it so no one’s paying attention to this.”

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.