China’s Use of Refueling Aircraft in Recent Taiwan Sortie Raises Alarms

( Taiwan was forced to scramble fighter jets on Sunday, November 28 after twenty-seven Chinese air force planes entered its air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Among the planes involved in the Chinese sortie was a refueling aircraft, which raised concerns that China may be seeking to project its power throughout the region.

For more than a year, Taiwan has lodged complaints about the repeated missions China has flown near the island and within its ADIZ, calling the missions “gray zone” warfare.

According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, the mission last Sunday included 18 fighter jets, five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, as well as the Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft. These Chinese air sorties do not ordinarily include a refueling craft.

In a briefing with reporters last week, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said China intends to slowly exhaust Taiwan with repeated shows of force. Chiu described the situation as “very serious,” saying Taiwan is analyzing the types of aircraft China is using to inform its future plans.

In last Sunday’s sortie, the five bombers and six of the fighter jets flew to the south of Taiwan into the Bashi Channel that separates Taiwan from the Philippines. The planes then flew into the Pacific before heading back to mainland China.

The presence of the Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft leads Taiwan to believe China refueled the short-range fighter inflight to enable it to project its power further from China’s mainland.

In response to the sortie, Taiwan sent combat aircraft to warn away the Chinese planes, while missile systems were deployed to monitor the situation.

China has previously said these missions are designed to protect the country’s sovereignty.

According to Fox News Pentagon reporter Lucas Tomlinson, China’s decision to deploy five bombers could have been a symbolic response to five US lawmakers recently visiting Taipei.

China has consistently claimed the democratically-ruled Taiwan as its territory and has asserted that it will maintain control by force if necessary. Beijing refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Taiwan’s government and has sought to isolate the current independence-leaning administration of President Tsai Ing-wen.