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Analyzing the Chinese drone flight that circled Taiwan

Defense analyst Ben Lewis examines PLA's first flight around Taiwan's east coast

This map shows the approximate route the Chinese drone took around Taiwan, as announced by the Ministry of Defense on Friday. (Taiwan Ministry of Defe...

This map shows the approximate route the Chinese drone took around Taiwan, as announced by the Ministry of Defense on Friday. (Taiwan Ministry of Defe...

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The Taiwan Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced a Chinese incursion into the country’s ADIZ that saw an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fly around the island's east coast, producing a striking image of Chinese military aircraft appearing to encircle Taiwan for the first time.

A Chinese aircraft taking this flight path looks like a big deal at first glance, but is less important when looking at the big picture, according to independent Taiwan security and defense analyst Ben Lewis, who has been tracking Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ since they began escalating in 2016.

“I think it was more concerning at first, until I saw what aircraft it was. It was only one drone, and it’s being tracked by air defenses,” Lewis told Taiwan News. “It’s really not going to do that much damage; I think it was proof of concept more than anything else.”

“The fact that it was a UAV and not a combat aircraft is very telling. I think it was the PLA testing and signaling at the same time. But it’s one of those things; you never really know what they’re going to do. So, I was surprised to see it at this point.”

Analyzing the Chinese drone flight that circled Taiwan
Image released on Friday showing the flight path taken by the Chinese Tengden TB-001 UAV around Taiwan's east coast. (Ministry of National Defense image)

Lewis said that he has never seen MND reports of this kind of flight path announced publicly, though he has seen some Japanese defense department maps that suggest manned Chinese aircraft were taking this route between 2016 and 2018.

He also said the likely impetus for the unusual flight path was the security agreement signed between U.S. President Biden and South Korean President Yoon in Washington on April 27. “(China) signaled that they’re not happy, and it seems to me they keep looking for more and more excuses to make sure everyone knows how unhappy they are with how things are going.”

Despite the low risk of the aircraft and flight path announced on Friday, Lewis acknowledged the psychological aspect of the daily incursions that cross into Taiwan's ADIZ. “It should be interpreted as a pressure campaign, there are a lot of variables that go into why they do this, but at the end of the day, it’s a large military power flexing military muscle against their smaller neighbor to achieve a political outcome,” he said.

Chinese military activities ramped up in August 2022 after then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen. Lewis said that before the Pelosi visit, there were only a few incursions that crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, but after her visit they were in the hundreds.

“From there, median line crossings have been as consistent as any other area in the ADIZ that gets violated,” he said. “So now the tell-tale sign for when China is mad is not just a large number of aircraft in the ADIZ, but a large number of aircraft crossing the median line.”

Chinese military activities ramped up once again in April, following President Tsai Ing-wen's transit through the U.S., where she met U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Taiwan's ADIZ was formulated by the U.S. military following World War Two, and includes the Taiwan Strait, parts of three Chinese provinces, and part of the East China Sea. The official median line was implemented in 1955, again by the U.S. military, who expressed the expectation that neither Taiwan or China's armed forces would cross the line to avoid increasing cross-strait tensions.