Walking in front of a Taiwanese fighter jet at Makung Air Force Base, Taiwan, September 2020
Yimou Lee / Reuters

On October 1, the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing sent 38 military aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, the most it had ever sent in a single day. The following day, Beijing broke its record again by sending 39 aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ. And then on October 4, it sent 56, shattering the daily record once more in a year in which China has flown military aircraft into the ADIZ on 173 days.

China appears to be rehearsing for joint combat operations near Taiwan. In addition to increasing the frequency of its flights, China is integrating a large number of fighter jets with nuclear-capable bombers and assets focused on antisubmarine warfare and air surveillance. China is demonstrating its ability to conduct military operations against Taiwan at all hours, 365 days of the year. It may also be expanding and routinizing these flights to desensitize Taiwan and the United States to Chinese military operations near the island, allowing Beijing to more easily disguise preparations for an actual attack on Taiwan as part of “normal” activities.

China’s increasingly aggressive behavior makes a cross-strait emergency more likely. But the risk of a crisis stems less from the possibility of an immediate Chinese invasion than from an accident or a miscalculation that turns deadly—a midair collision between Chinese and Taiwanese jets, for instance, or a Chinese decision to violate Taiwan’s sovereign airspace that prompts Taiwan to shoot down the plane. Beijing will probably continue to escalate its coercive efforts, sending aircraft closer to Taiwan and possibly even over the island itself. At a certain point, Taipei will be forced to respond—whether with enhanced surveillance and warnings or with military force. The United States must therefore work with Taiwan to preempt and respond to China’s military activities without triggering a crisis. Preparing for a full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan is no longer a sufficient U.S. strategy. Washington must also prepare for a blunder or a miscue that has the potential to explode into open conflict.

TIT FOR TAT

As China has ratcheted up its coercive behavior, Taiwan has refined its responses. Initially, Taipei scrambled fighter jets to intercept each approaching Chinese aircraft. By early 2021, however, the daily strain of doing so had prompted Taiwan to rely more on ground-based air defense systems to monitor Chinese intrusions. And the island’s leaders know that even these measures will be insufficient if China continues to escalate: Taiwan’s 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review, for instance, states that Taipei will adopt a tougher response as the enemy draws closer. According to multiple media reports, officials from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, air force, and coast guard have openly discussed a range of responses to Chinese military operations, based on their nature and their distance to the island. Some reports suggest that Taiwan may have already established three separate zones: a “surveillance” zone for Chinese activities within 30 nautical miles of Taiwan, a “warning” zone for activities within 24 nautical miles, and a “destruction” zone for activities within 12 nautical miles.

Within the destruction zone, Taiwan’s air force has reportedly formulated some standard operating procedures—for instance, by preparing to intercept intruding aircraft or to force them to land. If such aircraft are perceived to have hostile intent, Taiwan’s air force could lock its radar on the aircraft, fire warning shots, or even strike first to shoot them down. To prevent escalation, individual Taiwanese pilots are not allowed to shoot first unless the air force headquarters orders them to do so. In a crisis, the air force may be able to authorize such strikes without further approval from Taiwan’s most senior military and political officials.

These potential responses are comparable to those one might expect from countries facing similar threats. South Korea, for instance, fired hundreds of warning shots in 2019, when Russian aircraft intruded into the airspace over the disputed Dokdo Islands, known in Japan as the Takeshima Islands. Indeed, it would be politically untenable for any Taiwanese leader not to defend Taiwan from Chinese incursions. Although U.S. officials might prefer that Taiwan’s leaders not expend their limited military resources responding to Chinese military flights, domestic political imperatives will likely force them to do so.

So far, Chinese military aircraft have yet to fly within 12 nautical miles of the main island of Taiwan, at least according to public reports. But China has flown progressively closer to southwest Taiwan and to Pratas Island, which Taiwan administers and which sits roughly 275 miles from Taiwan in the South China Sea. If tensions continue to rise, China’s past flight paths and training exercises suggest that Beijing could readily escalate air operations in at least one of three ways: by flying closer to Taiwan, including to the east side of the island or near the center or north of the Taiwan Strait; by undermining Taiwan’s control of Pratas or other offshore islands that Taiwan administers, likely with regular overflights; and, most provocatively, by flying directly over Taiwan.

Taipei could feel compelled to shoot down a Chinese aircraft.

The first option would expand the geographic scope of Chinese military activities beyond the southwest corner of the ADIZ and bring Chinese aircraft closer to more sensitive and less fortified regions of Taiwan. The second and third options are more dangerous, however. To challenge Taiwan’s administration of Pratas, China could routinize flights over it, forcing Taiwan to either defend its airspace or acquiesce to regular Chinese incursions. Such flights could also serve as a test of Taiwan’s defenses and response before China attempts a flyover of the main island.

China might also attempt to use one of these escalatory maneuvers to force Taipei to be the first to use kinetic force, which could then justify a larger Chinese punitive operation against Taiwan. The Global Times, a nationalist state-run daily, has called the reported division of Taiwan’s airspace into defensive zones “especially ridiculous,” declaring that the Chinese military is “prepared to send warplanes to fly across the island of Taiwan to declare sovereignty.” While Chinese officials have been less explicit, they have argued that military operations and exercises against Taiwan are legitimate and necessary to safeguard Chinese sovereignty.

If Beijing disregards Taiwan’s possible redlines, it risks triggering a crisis—especially if its military aircraft enter the island’s reported “destruction” zone. Aggressive maneuvering by Chinese or Taiwanese pilots could result in an unintended midair fatality akin to the one that occurred in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and forcing the U.S. plane to make an emergency landing in China. Should China attempt to fly military aircraft directly over Taiwan itself, Taipei could feel that it has no option but to shoot down the aircraft.

Even an accidental collision in the Taiwan Strait could spiral out of control. Since the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, when China shelled Taiwan’s offshore islands, neither side has suffered a fatality in a cross-strait encounter. If that were to change today, however, both sides would be ill equipped to manage the domestic political fallout—and both could be forced into tougher and more inflexible positions. If a Chinese fighter pilot were to be killed, moreover, Beijing could decide to eschew diplomacy until after it has punished Taiwan. And because cross-strait communication channels have been dormant for over five years, mutual misperceptions could easily result in further escalation.

CRISIS MANAGEMENT

To be sure, the United States must prepare for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which means ensuring that it has the military capability to prevent China from capturing the island and making clear to Beijing that an unprovoked attack would come with a heavy price. But the United States must also prepare for the more likely near-term cause of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait: an accident or miscommunication that pushes both sides to the brink of war.

To that end, Washington should invest in making Taiwan more resilient and better able to withstand Chinese military pressure. It should also help Taiwan deter China’s most threatening activities and work with Taiwan to develop responses to its neighbor’s provocations. For instance, U.S. and Taiwanese officials could conduct tabletop exercises focused on heightened Chinese aggression that falls short of war, helping Taiwan’s national security leaders think through the implications of different responses, including defending potential redlines.

Washington should help Taiwan develop responses to China's provocations.

To prepare for the possibility of a military or paramilitary incident in the Taiwan Strait, the United States should prioritize maintaining reliable crisis communication channels with both China and Taiwan. Washington could also privately communicate some of Taipei’s redlines to Beijing and warn Chinese leaders against testing them. At the same time, it could work with allies and partners to impress upon China the destabilizing consequences of its coercive behavior against Taiwan. Where appropriate, the United States may even want to encourage Taipei to publicly reveal some of its thinking on Chinese military activities, signaling when and why it may have to respond with military force.

As China escalates its military coercion of Taiwan, the risk of an accidental crisis will only increase. Taiwan and the United States should continue to work together to deter a Chinese invasion of the island, but that agenda is no longer enough to prevent a conflict. Taipei and Washington must also develop responses to Chinese military pressure that reduce the risk of a potentially deadly miscue or blunder. Years ago, U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jinping that “the only thing worse than a war is an unintentional war.” Now, as the risk of such a war over Taiwan increases, it is incumbent upon Biden to help stave it off.

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  • BONNY LIN is Senior Fellow for Asian Security and Director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • DAVID SACKS is a Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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