Taiwan and its surrounding airspace “is all ours,” a Chinese fighter pilot reportedly remarked on Monday as the People’s Liberation Army flew jets and spy planes toward the democratic island for more than half the days in March.
According to a recording carried by newspapers in Taipei and acquired by Newsweek, the exchange between pilots from the Republic of China Air Force and PLA Air Force took place at 10:04 a.m. local time after the Chinese warplane flew into Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone (ADIZ).
Taipei’s interceptor aircraft, which was not identified in local reports, dispatched a standard radio warning to its Chinese counterpart: “This is the Republic of China Air Force. The Chinese military aircraft currently flying at 6,000 meters in Taiwan’s southwestern airspace, you have entered our airspace and are affecting aviation safety. Turn around and leave immediately.”
The reply which came a few seconds later was brief, with the response in Chinese saying: “This is all ours.”
According to Liberty Times and Apple Daily—two publications to carry the recordings on Tuesday—the brief exchange was heard and recorded by moderators of the Facebook page “Southwest Airspace of TW.”
The page is run by observers who track military and civilian aircraft movements around Taiwan, reporting particularly on maneuvers by the Chinese and American militaries.
A moderator, who did not wish to be named, told Newsweek that Monday’s exchange between pilots from Taiwan and China was heard using software-defined radio on the aeronautical emergency frequency 121.5 MHz.
The Taiwanese military also uses 243.0 Mhz but all attempts to drive Chinese aircraft out of its ADIZ have happened on 121.5 Mhz, the administrator added.
The latest PLA activity in Taiwan’s ADIZ, which is not regulated under any international law, involved one reconnaissance aircraft on Tuesday, marking the 18th day in March that Chinese warplanes have incurred in the defensive airspace, according to figures published by Taiwan’s defense ministry.
The Southwest Airspace of TW, however, says airborne Chinese military hardware has entered the southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ on 23 days this month, based on the number of occasions Taipei has issued radio warnings—61 times in March and 208 times since the start of the year.
The discrepancy, the moderator says, is due to Taiwan’s defense ministry choosing not to publicly announce the times it tracks Chinese drones.
PLA aircraft flew 10 sorties into the ADIZ on Monday, after flying 20 warplanes around the island last Friday. Both escalations occurred as Taiwan boosted its informal diplomatic ties with the United States with the signing of a coast guard pact on March 26 and the visit to Taipei by a serving U.S. diplomat on March 29.
Notable, however, were Chinese military planes performing something akin to a pincer movement around Taiwan, with two additional warplanes approaching the east coast after flying through the Miyako Strait between Japan-controlled islands.
The maneuvers give the impression China is enhancing its military exercises rather than simply conducting military intimidation, said Hung Tzu-chieh, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.
“The impression that the PLA is stepping up preparations for future conflicts and wars has increased recently (or at least the PLA wants us to think in that way),” Hung told Newsweek in a written statement.
The continued exercises around Taiwan have “disrupted regional peace and stability and increased potential conflicts in the future,” he added.
The recent PLA flights—32 in five days and totaling 54 this month—also included sorties deep into the Bashi Channel between southern Taiwan and northern Philippines. The waterway grants access to the South China Sea from the Western Pacific.
According to Hung’s analysis, the flights, although rare in recent months, are not unprecedented. PLA warplanes also flew through the Bashi Channel into the Western Pacific for aviation drills last year, he said.
In a report this month, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the country’s pilots had flown 1,000 extra hours deterring PLA jets and spy planes last year.
Given the high cost to both manpower and hardware, the air force adjusted the way it responded to PLA incursions by withholding some interceptor jets and sending slower-moving reconnaissance aircraft instead.
On Monday, Taiwanese Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-pin told lawmakers at a parliamentary hearing that some PLA planes were now also being tracked exclusively by land-based missiles, reducing the impact on Taiwan’s aging and limited military hardware.
Chang agreed with a legislator who asked whether Friday’s waves of record incursions amounted to an “attacking posture” from the Chinese military. He said the maneuvers by different aircraft types appeared to be “combined operations” by China’s navy and air force.
PLA air force activity around Taiwan in recent years has caused alarm not only in Taipei, but in Tokyo as well, according to local reports over the weekend.
Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reports that Japan’s defense ministry is looking to increase the presence of the Japan Self-Defense Forces on the island of Yonaguni, which is less than 70 miles from eastern Taiwan.
The island, part of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, is home to roughly 1,700 inhabitants and around 160 Japanese troops. In the event of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, Japan fears Beijing may eye Yonaguni next, the report said.
The continued stability of the Taiwan Strait was raised as a joint concern by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi after their “2+2” meeting earlier this month. Analysts say a conflict between Taiwan and China is likely to involve the United States and therefore its treaty ally Japan, too.