Over the past week tensions have been soaring in the South China Sea and near Taiwan given the increased presence of both Chinese and American military patrols. In particular the entry of the USS Roosevelt carrier group over a week ago and last week's corresponding military drills in the Gulf of Tonkin by the Chinese PLA Navy, also amid repeat Chinese aerial incursions of Taiwan's airspace, have served to set the region further on edge.
At the start of this week Taiwan's Defense Ministry made an extremely rare admission, announcing that on Sunday as six Chinese fighters breached its airspace, American aircraft were present at the same time.
"Six Chinese fighter aircraft and a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft entered the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on Sunday, the island’s defense ministry said, in an unusual admission of U.S. military activity," Reuters reports of the statement.
At this point Chinese PLA flyovers of Taiwan's claimed airspace have happened nearly daily over the past two weeks, resulting in multiple instances of the breakaway island Republic scrambling F-16 jets to warn off the incursions.
"Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said a total of seven Chinese aircraft flew into the same waters near the Pratas Islands on Sunday - two J-10 fighters, four J-11 fighters and a Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft," Reuters detailed further of the latest incident.
But crucially Taiwan added the rare detail of US spy planes operating in the same airspace:
It added that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was also present in the same southwestern part of the defence zone, but neither named the aircraft type nor provided details of its flight path, which it does for all Chinese flights.
It was the first time Taiwan had mentioned the presence of a U.S. aircraft since it began near daily reports of Chinese activity in its defence zone in mid-September.
In publicizing such usually restricted information it appears Taipei aims to present it as a "warning" to Beijing, also to notify allies in the region of just how hot things are getting.
Five PLA aircraft (Y-8 RECCE, J-10 and J-11) and one US RECCE aircraft entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Jan. 31, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/lklNSARfT4 pic.twitter.com/MAZZ5xdtoO— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) January 31, 2021
There's little doubt China also knew about the Americans' presence. The US will likely only increase the frequency of such reconnaissance flights so long as the American carrier group is in the region.
One PLA Y-8 ASW and three US aircraft (RECCE*2, TANKER) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Feb. 1, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/2Ai8isnqrf pic.twitter.com/07VlHnSQPX— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) February 1, 2021
Another PLA incursion was reported Monday, Feb.1. As is usual Taiwan published the PLA aircraft flight path, but doesn't appear to have released that of the US aircraft, while giving rare public acknowledgement that American aircraft are present in the same defense identification zone:
But this only further sets the stage for a potential inadvertent direct conflict, given the closeness with which the rival superpowers are operating over disputed waters and in contested airspace.