In recent weeks, China’s drones have been a consistent part of its military activity around Taiwan, demonstrating new capabilities and increasing pressure on the self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory.
Drone flights over Taiwan’s outlying islands, often by small civilian models, are among China’s more visible pressure tactics, and experts and officials are concerned that such actions risk turning high tensions into outright conflict.
Following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 3, China launched a series of military exercises around the island. Live-fire drills over and around the island were part of the exercises, as were repeated flights by Chinese aircraft across the median line, an unofficial but long-acknowledged boundary in the Taiwan Strait.
After Pelosi left, Taiwanese troops fired flares at two Chinese drones over Kinmen County, a group of Taiwanese islands a few miles off the coast of the Chinese city of Xiamen.
According to Maj. Gen. Chang Jung-shun of the Taiwanese army’s Kinmen Defense Command, it was the first time he could recall Kinmen units taking such action.
Taiwan’s army said on August 5 that troops in Kinmen detected four drones and fired flares to scare them away. Around the same time, similar aircraft were spotted around Taiwan’s Matsu archipelago, which is off China’s coast to the north of Kinmen.
On August 7, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry announced that its forces were on alert and deploying to monitor Chinese aircraft, ships, and drones “simulating attacks on the island of Taiwan.”
China declared the end of its exercises around Taiwan on August 10, but it has maintained a high level of naval and air activity around the island. (On August 9, Taiwan began its own drills, which it described as defensive.)
China’s “high-intensity” operations in early August, “including the use of drones to intrude [over] Taiwan’s offshore islands,” were “irrational and provocative,” Taiwanese Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Min-Han Hsieh said Wednesday.
On August 16, a mainland Chinese civilian drone flew over Kinmen, photographing and filming Taiwanese troops, some of whom threw rocks at the drone. The video was widely circulated on Chinese social media.
More drone flights over Taiwan’s offshore islands and off Taiwan’s east coast occurred in the final days of August, with local observers estimating a drone circled for an hour on August 30.
Taiwan’s army announced on August 29 that it would respond to such drone flights in four steps: “firing warning flares, reporting the incursion, expelling the drone, and ultimately shooting it down.”
Taiwanese troops followed through on that procedure hours later, firing warning shots at three drones flying over Kinmen on August 30. Taiwan’s military called them “civilian use” drones that returned to Xiamen after the shots were fired.
Taiwanese forces shot down a drone for the first time on Thursday. According to Chang, a spokesman for the Kinmen Defense Command, the drone took off from Xiamen and was flying over restricted waters around a Kinmen islet when Taiwanese troops initiated the procedure, “warning it off before shooting it down after it failed to leave the area.”
Kinmen and Matsu are only a few miles from the Chinese mainland, and Beijing has long used activity on those islands to put pressure on Taipei. In February, a small Chinese civilian plane flew near a Matsu island, possibly as a test of Taiwan’s response.
While Taiwanese officials have identified many of the drones involved in recent overflights as civilian, China’s military has made significant investments in a variety of unmanned aircraft and watercraft.
According to Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies Program at MIT, the distance covered by some Chinese military drones was surprising, and flights through Japan’s Ryukyu Islands northeast of Taiwan appeared to be a new step.
It’s not surprising that China would want to access the Pacific through those islands, according to Fravel, a Chinese military expert who spoke at the Defense Priorities event.
Drones, especially civilian models, are also cheaper and are seen as less likely to draw the same level of response as manned military aircraft, but China’s continued drone flights and Taiwan’s promise to respond have raised concerns about escalation.