Chinese Flights Near Taiwan Look Like ‘Rehearsal,’ US Officials Warn

 In Taiwan

Adm. John Aquilino believes China is using its flights near Taiwan as a grey zone effort. (US Navy/Anthony J. Rivera)

REAGAN NATIONAL DEFENSE FORUM: Over the last year, China has stepped up its flights around Taiwan, at one point in October flying almost 150 aircraft through Taiwan’s claimed Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a four-day period.

Running that many planes through Taiwan’s ADIZ would seem to be a great opportunity for China to get a sense of potential operations — a suspicion US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin voiced over the weekend.

“I don’t want to speculate, but certainly, it looks like a lot like them exploring their true capabilities, and sure, it looks a lot like rehearsing” for operations against Taiwan, Austin said at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif., on Saturday.

Asked about Austin’s comments, Adm. John Aquilino, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, said that he agreed with the assessment. But the INDOPACOM chief also noted the flights have more than one purpose.

“I think the assessment is, as the Secretary articulated, right, training and rehearsal, but I also believe it has a coercive nature and a gray zone type of activity to ensure that the people on Taiwan will see that capability every day,” Aquilino told reporters. “So, it’s a form of a pressure campaign. That’s my assessment.”

Aquilino underlined that while the major spikes in activity are what get attention, the US is tracking Chinese flights near Taiwan on a regular basis.

“There’s a couple of days of spikes, and then there’s a fairly steady level almost daily,” he said. “So, you know, we’ve been watching it every day. It becomes reported when there’s a spike. Sometimes that spike is associated with an event that the US might have done, so there’s a bit of a tit for tat, that I believe, is potentially explainable, if that makes sense. “

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Given that reality, the INDOPACOM head was then asked how the US takes into account China’s reaction when planning exercises or Freedom of Operation movements in the region. While sticking to the Pentagon talking point that the military will travel anywhere international law allows, regardless of what “one nation” thinks about it, Aquilino acknowledged that not escalating the situation is something that factors into operational planning.

“We are certainly not here to generate a conflict, so we manage and watch all of our operations each and every day,” he said. “Our operations are designed to protect the international order. They’re designed to ensure that all of our allies and partners understand that we’re a Pacific nation. We’ve been in the region forever. We’re going to stay in the region to protect certainly our national interests and the interests that apply to the international world order.

“And we’re not here to generate provocation or start a conflict. We’re been here for eighty years operating this way. So that’s kind of how we look at it, but we watch our operations everyday to ensure that we’re protecting the peace and not generating conflict.”

Fortress Guam May Take Longer Than Hoped

Aquilino also addressed what has been a primary goal for both him and his predecessor, Adm. Philip Davidson — the creation of an air defense network around Guam.

Davidson pushed heavily for that system to be ready to go by fiscal 2026. However, Aquilino seemed to acknowledge that the funding set forth for the program that appears likely in the fiscal 2022 budget (whenever that process is completed), as well as ongoing discussion inside the building over the next budget, means that FY26 date can’t be relied on.

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“We’ll see what comes out. I can’t tell you what’s going to come out of the budget … because I don’t know. Because everything has slid, I will categorize that my requirements are to deliver the defensive capability for Guam in the near term. Now, what year that is, we’ll see how it’s described.”

Asked to clarify if that means FY26 is no longer the target, Aquilino replied that “the desire is to get a near-term defensive capability in there as soon as possible. And I’m waiting to see what the building thinks that can deliver and when.”

He also said that “all options are being reviews” in terms of capabilities, including the potential for a mobile air defense system.

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