- A Chinese drone cross the Taiwan Strait median line along with warplanes on Thursday.
- It is the first time that China’s UAVs are known to have crossed the unofficial dividing line.
- More sorties by drones that crossed the median line were logged on Friday and Saturday.
Taiwan’s military has confirmed for the first time that the People’s Liberation Army flew drones across the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait this week.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said 45 PLA aircraft flew around Taiwan on Thursday, 25 of which crossed the median line, including a BT-100 unmanned aerial vehicle. It also confirmed that more drones had crossed the line on Friday and Saturday.
On Monday, it said another PLA drone — identified as a BZK-007 — had entered Taiwan’s southwest air defence identification zone, a rare revelation of the model and its flight route.
The sorties came after the Taiwan military shot down a civilian drone that flew into restricted waters near Shiyu, a tiny Taiwanese-controlled island a few kilometres from the Chinese mainland.
The median line of the Taiwan Strait — which separates mainland China and Taiwan and connects the East and South China seas — was demarcated by Benjamin Davis Jr., a senior US Air Force commander, in 1955 and Washington then pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it.
But tensions have escalated across the strait since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defied Beijing’s repeated warnings by paying a visit to Taiwan on August 2 and 3. The PLA launched massive drills encircling the island after her visit.
Beijing sees the island as part of China and has never ruled out the use of force to take control under the one-China policy. The US, in common with many states, does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state but opposes any attempt to take the island by force.
A source close to the PLA said Beijing had been sending drones to the Taiwan Strait since it stepped up the scale of its “encirclement patrols.”
“The PLA used to send UAVs to perform reconnaissance tasks in sensitive areas of the sky before sending fighter jets for special missions, but the Taiwanese military wasn’t aware of it until recently,” said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy, said the use of drones might date back to November last year when the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command announced “joint combat-readiness security patrols” around Taiwan.
“The Taiwanese military should have been aware of the [PLA drones],” Lu said. “But just like Japan’s announcement that PLA missiles had flown over Taiwan [during island blockade drill], it has to reveal the details because Tokyo has reported it.”
Early last month, a BZK-005 and a TB-001 were first spotted by Japan’s Self-Defence Forces flying over waters off the northeastern coast of Taiwan in the East China Sea. The two drones have been used by the Chinese military in maritime surveillance operations over the East China Sea since at least April 2019.
The BZK-005 is a reconnaissance aircraft with an estimated range of 2,400km (1,490 miles) and a maximum flight time of 40 hours.
The TB-001, nicknamed the twin-tailed scorpion, is a combat and spy UAV developed by civilian company Sichuan Tengden Technology. It has a range of around 6,000km and maximum flying time of 35 hours.
At the end of July, as Taiwan carried out its annual Han Kuang military exercises, the Japanese spotted a TB-001 in the Miyako Strait off Okinawa and later tracked it to a location off the west coast of Taiwan.
To defend Quemoy and Matsu archipelagos, which are less than 10km (6 miles) from mainland’s coast, Taiwan’s military has started deploying its CS/MPQ-90 Bee Eye radars to help frontline troops detect upcoming PLA drones and spy jets, United Daily News reported.
Taiwan also plans to spend nearly US$700 million to buy four American MQ-9B Sea Guardian UAVs but they will take years to deliver, the Taipei-based China Times reported on Friday.
With a range of up to 6,000km and 40 hours of flight time, the Taiwanese military hopes the MQ-9B can help it better watch the seas.
“Compared with the PLA’s multi-role drones, the MQ-9B could take the defensive role of sea patrols, which is the only choice for Taiwan,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank.