As you were busy buying big bags of charcoal and forming hamburger patties in preparation for a Memorial Day cookout, the Chinese flew nuclear-capable bombers around Taiwan. This sort of passive aggression isn’t anything new — it happens pretty often, so it’s not a big deal to most of us. But for the island of Taiwan, seeing two H-6 Badgers fly overhead is certainly cause for concern.
China carried out a similar orbit of the so-called “Nine-Dash Line” using a Badger shortly after the freshly-elected President Trump took a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. China has been seeking to isolate Taiwan, which it views as a renegade province, and has forced a number of countries, the latest being Burkina Faso, to end diplomatic relations with island nation.
Republic of China Air Force AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighters scrambled to intercept the Badgers.
(Photo by Toshiro Aoki)
In potential hot spots, like Taiwan or the South China Sea, “training missions” like these are often used to probe opposing forces — and the tactic isn’t exclusive to China. The United States prefers the deceptively innocuous term “freedom of navigation exercises” for similar missions, which are conducted by ships or aircraft. On rare occasions, such passive provocations can devolve into shootouts.
On three instances in the 1980s, American forces ended up in combat with the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi. In 1981, two F-14 Tomcats shot down Libyan Su-22 Fitters after taking enemy fire. 1986 saw extensive naval combat that resulted in the sinking of two Libyan missile boats. In 1989, two F-14s shot down two MiG-23 Floggers.
The 1986 freedom of navigation exercises in the Gulf of Sidra led to a sharp naval engagement, in which this Nanuchka-class corvette was sunk.
This may be a routine practice, but historical precedent also makes it a big deal. China may not be aggressing on Taiwan outright, but should Taiwan react forcefully, the fallout could be deadly.