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A flurry of balloons from mainland China have flown over Taiwan in recent days, according to the island’s defence ministry. Photo: AP

Is Beijing trying to create ‘new status quo’ by sending balloons over Taiwan?

  • Island’s defence ministry says 16 balloons have crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait since Friday
  • Taipei analysts say it’s part of an effort to eliminate the de facto boundary and squeeze Taiwan’s air space
The passage of a growing number of balloons from mainland China over Taiwan suggests Beijing is doubling down on efforts to deny the island jurisdiction over its airspace and deny the de facto boundary between them, according to Taipei-based analysts.

The Taiwanese defence ministry said that since Lunar New Year’s Eve on Friday, 16 balloons from the mainland had crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a notional midway point between self-governed Taiwan and mainland China.

A record eight balloons crossed the line on Friday, the highest number detected since the ministry started issuing notifications of balloon sightings on December 8.

The crossovers were followed by another eight detected at the start of the Lunar New Year on Saturday, bringing the total to 83.

Of the 16, seven were detected flying directly over central Taiwan and one over northern Taiwan at altitudes ranging from 12,000 feet to 35,000 feet (3,660 metres to 10,670 metres), according to the ministry.

China will not fall into ‘trap’ of war in Taiwan Strait: Cui Tiankai

Beijing has repeatedly sent warplanes over the median line in the past two years and on February 1 changed a civilian flight path close to the line in a move seen as a bid to squeeze the air space controlled by Taipei.
It comes after Taiwan in January elected independence-leaning William Lai Ching-te as the island’s next president.

Beijing – which views Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunited, by force if necessary – has described Lai as an “obstinate separatist” and had warned that electing him could bring war.

Most countries, including the United States, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state but are opposed to any unilateral change of the cross-strait status quo by force.

According to analysts, the People’s Liberation Army is attempting to ramp up pressure on Taiwan by sending balloons over the median line. They say it is also part of an effort to eliminate the de facto boundary between Taiwan and mainland China.

“After sending warplanes into our air defence identification zone, the PLA has gone a step further by sending a series of balloons across the median line,” said Chieh Chung, a senior analyst at the National Policy Foundation in Taipei, a think tank affiliated with the main opposition Kuomintang.

“This means that the PLA has tried to ‘interiorise’ the Taiwan Strait by first denying the existence of the median line and then our jurisdiction over our air space,” Chieh said.

“The PLA not only wants to squeeze our air space but also intends to create a new status quo where there is no legal boundary between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

Chang Yen-ting, a retired Taiwanese air force general, said even if the balloons were being used for meteorological purposes, the PLA could use the data they collect for a potential military attack on the island.

“The PLA will be able to learn about wind directions, air and sea currents, cold and hot fronts, temperatures, humidity and jet currents at different altitudes around Taiwan at different times,” he said. “This will facilitate its planning not only in the air but also for sea attacks on Taiwan.”

Chang also noted that regularly sending balloons over the median line added to pressure on Taiwan’s military and other agencies monitoring their activities. “In the long run it will also make the public less alert,” he added.

But according to Chieh from the Taipei think tank, it would not be easy for Taiwan’s air force to shoot down the balloons without specialist training and planning.

“There is also the concern that falling balloon debris could cause civilian casualties and property damage,” he said.

A Taiwanese defence official has said the military does not plan to shoot down balloons flying over from mainland China.

“This would be a waste of ammunition,” Colonel Wang Chia-chun, deputy head of the ministry’s joint operations planning section, said last month.

He said relevant authorities would be alerted when balloons were detected, and the military would closely monitor the movement of balloons, especially if they were flying close to the island’s densely populated areas.