Taiwan reveals Chinese military balloons fly into its airspace ‘very frequently’

Taiwan has observed dozens of Chinese military balloon flights in its airspace in recent years, far more than previously known, raising concerns that Beijing could be preparing to attack the country.

“They come very frequently, most recently a few weeks ago,” said a senior Taiwanese official. Another person briefed on the matter said such attacks happened on average once a month.

Previously, Taiwan’s defense ministry had confirmed just one incident in February last year, in which multiple Chinese balloons in four batches hung over the north of the country.

Other countries in the region, including Japan and the Philippines, have observed balloons entering their airspace, but their governments have shared few details.

The revelations about the frequent flights over Taiwan offer new insights into China’s extensive military balloon program, which drew global attention after the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month.

The revelations also come as the People’s Liberation Army has bolstered the capabilities it would need to invade Taiwan. Beijing claims the island as part of its territory and has long threatened to annex it by military force if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely.

Many analysts specializing in cross-strait relations believe that China’s leader Xi Jinping has not yet made the decision to go to war. But the PLA’s buildup of missile, air and naval assets, as well as exercises focused on invasion scenarios and larger and more complex air and naval maneuvers closer to Taiwan, have convinced some US military officials that Xi’s goal is to be ready for a fight within a few years.

Escalating tensions between China and the US have also fueled fears that Beijing could resort to violence.

Taiwanese government officials said the Chinese balloons observed in Taiwan’s airspace typically fly at an altitude of about 20,000 feet, much lower than the one that transited the US, and are made of a different material. The US shot down two more objects over North American airspace over the weekend.

However, Taiwanese officials said the balloons’ dimensions and payload put them outside the scope of ordinary weather balloons, which are allowed to cross other countries’ airspace without prior approval under international law.

According to officials dealing with military and intelligence issues in three Asian countries, the balloons observed over Taiwan were developed by the Equipment Development Department, the department in charge of weapons systems under China’s Central Military Commission, the top military body headed by Xi.

“Some of the balloons are used by the PLA Air Force and others by the Rocket Force,” said a Taiwanese official, adding that military planes are regularly sent up to watch the balloons. The balloons have collected atmospheric data for use in radar and missile systems, according to people briefed on the matter in Taiwan and a US ally.

“All sorts of atmospheric peculiarities, such as barometric pressure and density at that point in time, can affect a rocket’s accuracy after re-entering the atmosphere, and minute errors are greatly magnified due to velocity,” said Kitsch Liao, deputy director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council , a think tank in Washington.

He added that the same problem applies to long-range over-the-horizon radar systems, which China needs for operations in the waters and airspace east of Taiwan.

“You need very large amounts of data to feed your algorithm, partly because conditions change over the seasons and can differ from year to year,” says Liao. “That’s why you have to keep coming back.”

https://www.ft.com/content/023764a2-6af2-4fbb-b75d-dd607c907f6e Taiwan reveals Chinese military balloons fly into its airspace ‘very frequently’

Adam Bradshaw

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