Last Monday, Chinese jets carried out “island encirclement patrols” around Taiwan, with state media showing pictures of bombers armed with cruise missiles.
But, the recent military exercises around Taiwan suggest mainland China could be trying to gather military intelligence in preparation for a military invasion.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said: “The recent ‘island encirclement’ patrols are very unusual.
“The air force is conducting very practical and well-planned patrols near Taiwan to collect up-to-date military intelligence.”
Wang said that in the past, the naval and air patrols in the region are nothing new, but in the past, they were mostly symbolic.
He added: “But now, the mainland is deploying old and new generations of surveillance planes, fighter jets and other aircraft … indicating the PLA is stepping up its preparations for war against Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Monday that it spotted two PLA Yun-8 transport planes conducting long-haul flights near Taiwan between Sunday and Monday.
They are classed as transport planes, but Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Monday that it spotted two PLA Yun-8 transport planes conducting long-haul flights near Taiwan between Sunday and Monday.
Last month, the Chinese airforce flew the Tu-154, their largest reconnaissance aircraft, close to Taiwan.
Mr Wong continued: “The Tu-154, which is equipped with a synthetic-aperture radar, is able to survey and map Taiwan’s military bases, which will be very useful if Beijing launches a military strike against Taipei.”
Since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces, Beijing has considered Taiwan to be a wayward province.
As such, it has never renounced the use of force to bring it back under control as part of the Anti-Secession law, which allows China to use force on Taiwan if deemed necessary to prevent the island from gaining independence.
The island is also of huge strategic importance for mainland China as it lies in the middle of its route to the Pacific Ocean.
China’s foreign policy has been pushing southwards to the South China Sea and has led to territorial disputes with neighbours.
In November, Beijing deployed warplanes and bombers to fly over the disputed South China Sea during a series of military training drills in a show of force against the United States.
Beijing-based military commentator Zhou Chenming said: “Taiwan is the key obstacle for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reaching the Western Pacific because it’s part of the ‘first island chain’, which contains the Chinese mainland.”
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the increased focus on Taiwan was probably triggered by the unstable political situation on the island.
Japan and the US are expected to support the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s attempts at secession, he said.
He added: “The PLA’s ultimate rivals are the US and Japan, with the US playing a key role behind the scenes on cross-strait issues.”
On December 11, it was reported that Taiwan had asked Japan for its support as it seeks to join the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.
This is the regional trade agreement that succeeded the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the departure of the US.
Mr Li continued: “The mainland needs to update all of its military intelligence on Taiwan, including how many stealth fighter jets and strategic bombers it has, as well as any US and Japanese military deployments in the Western Pacific region.
“Conducting intensive patrols around Taiwan is an essential part of the PLA’s preparations for any possible warlike operations in the future.”
Relations between China and Taiwan have soured considerably since Tsai Ing-wen, who leads Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, won presidential elections last year.
China suspects Tsai wants to declare the island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing. Tsai says she wants to maintain peace with China but will defend Taiwan’s security.
Taiwan is well equipped with mostly US weapons but has been pressing for more advanced equipment to deal with what it sees as rising threat from China.
Although the United States has no formal ties with Taiwan it is bound by law to help it defend itself and is its main source of arms.
On Tuesday US President Donald Trump signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act for the 2018 fiscal year, which authorises the possibility of mutual visits by navy vessels between Taiwan and the United States.