What Putin fears

Russians and Belarusians are tired of backwards-looking autocrats

The old tools of truncheon and syringe may keep them in power. But for how long?

Nothing is as inspiring as seeing people take to the streets to demand their freedoms—and nothing is as terrifying for the dictators they are defying. In Belarus, among scenes that recall the revolts of 1989, people are turning out in their hundreds of thousands after a blatantly rigged election, heedless of the threat of state violence.

In the Russian city of Khabarovsk tens of thousands march week after week to protest against the arrest of the local governor and the imposition of Moscow’s rules. Vladimir Putin is rattled. Why else is Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and Mr Putin’s greatest popular rival for the Russian presidency, lying poisoned in a Berlin hospital bed?

Regimes that rule by fear, live in fear. They fear that one day the people will no longer tolerate their lies, thieving and brutality. They try to hang on with propaganda, persecution and patronage. But it looks increasingly as if Mr Putin is running out of tricks, and as if Alexander Lukashenko, his troublesome ally in Minsk, is running out of road.

That is why, despite the Kremlin’s denials, they are falling back on the truncheon and the syringe. And it is why, as the protests roll on, they must be wondering whether state violence can secure their regimes.

Both leaders came to power promising relief from the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr Putin offered his citizens a deal: stay out of politics and you will get order and better wages. Mr Lukashenko promised Soviet-style continuity. Mr Putin was lucky that oil prices soared after he took over. Ordinary Russians benefited (though not nearly as much as the regime’s cronies).

Mr Putin built a mafia state; Mr Lukashenko, an old-fashioned dictatorship. Both men seek to project an image of strength through tame media—Mr Lukashenko had himself filmed this week whizzing around in a helicopter and brandishing an ak-47 to face down the supposed Western plot to overthrow him. However, neither regime can reform itself. They may use state television to proclaim virtual change, but they struggle when it comes to the real thing.

Start with the economy. Belarus retains a theme-park version of the old Soviet system. When Mr Lukashenko went to gather support among the workers, he flew off to a state-owned tractor factory like some latter-day Lenin.

The country’s exports largely consist of potash and petroleum products refined from Russian oil that used to be discounted. Russia is different from Belarus. Its economy is more open and less monolithic.

Yet the commanding heights of industry and finance are in the hands of the oligarchs in the Kremlin’s trusted circle. Mr Putin has thus been unable to unleash competition and dynamism without upsetting the relationships that keep him in power. He has failed to diversify away from hydrocarbons, so the recent double shock of low oil prices and covid-19 has sent the economy reeling. As belts tighten, he has nothing to offer but nationalism and nostalgia.

That cocktail is losing its potency. For two decades Mr Putin has invoked an imaginary past of glory, plenty and certainty in the days of the Soviet and tsarist empires. His regime is a pioneer of disinformation. It invented the troll factory, and has created a media environment where, as one commentator put it, “nothing is true and everything is possible”.

Yet Mr Putin’s offering looks tired next to that of Mr Navalny, whose popular YouTube videos are as skilful as the regime’s, but resonate with a growing sense of frustration. They are also grounded in exhaustive research into the regime’s corruption—and thus, in reality.

As well as failing to bring about economic and cultural renewal, both Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko have failed to renew their regimes. Neither has a plausible successor. Mr Lukashenko has taken to trotting out his 15-year-old son, most recently in combat gear. Mr Putin cannot easily groom a successor lest it upset the factions he must keep sweet.

This year he attempted to solve the problem by changing the constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2036, when he will be 84. But that, too, was a sign of exhaustion. Mr Navalny, by contrast, has been busy organising opposition votes for regional elections to be held on September 13th. He may have been removed from the stage because if Russia had seen a popular movement like that in Belarus, he would have been its most plausible leader.

Mr Navalny’s poisoning is evidence that when these regimes run out of ideas, they resort to violence. And yet Belarus shows how hard a tool violence is to wield. Mr Lukashenko tried savage repression by arresting and torturing protesters but, so far, it has emboldened them and further undermined him.

Sunday’s huge protests overwhelmed his threat to use force against them. He might have been willing to kill people in their hundreds or thousands, but he cannot afford to lose the loyalty of his security forces.

Mr Putin recognises that blunt force used against the people could fuel further protests—it is why the Kremlin has largely left the demonstrators in Khabarovsk untouched in the hope that they will lose interest. But were the protests to start to spread from the far east, Mr Putin would face a similar calculus. He can arrest and intimidate the elites all he likes. The people, in sufficient numbers, are less easy to control.

What can other countries do about all this? The answer begins with defending the principle of human rights. Germany has correctly offered asylum to Mr Navalny. Its doctors can explain what was done to him—and be believed by ordinary Russians.

The European Union and America have properly declined to recognise the results of Mr Lukashenko’s stolen election. Their refusal may be spun by propagandists in Minsk and Moscow as evidence that the protests are a covert operation by the West, but the people in the street do not believe it.

Outside powers should warn Russia that any use of force in Belarus would be followed by severe sanctions. Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko will not be restrained by moral, legal or diplomatic norms, but if they spill blood to stay in office there must be consequences.

How long these two dismal regimes will survive is anyone’s guess. Backward-looking autocracies can cling on for years. Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko are not alone in taking power and promising a return to an imagined era of lost glory.

But the pattern is clear. Although this may feel good at first, the people eventually become, in the words of one Belarusian protester, “sick of them”.

And that is when dictators should be afraid.

Turkey’s Navy: Searching for an Edge in the Mediterranean

Ankara’s aspirations go far beyond its capabilities.

By: Caroline D. Rose

It seems that in every corner of the Middle East, Turkey has inserted itself in one way or another. In northern Iraq and Syria, it’s trying to establish buffer zones to prevent insurgents from penetrating its border. In the Caucasus, it’s trying to protect vital energy supply chains and counter Russian influence.

In Somalia and Qatar, it operates shared bases and provides military training programs to maintain a foothold in the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf. And in the Black Sea, where it recently discovered significant natural gas reserves, it will be increasingly assertive to protect its access resources.

Yet for Turkey, the most vital theater is the Eastern Mediterranean. It has become the focus of Turkish energy interests, mercantile opportunities and an emerging, forward-leaning defense posture that not only protects existing Turkish interests but expands them.

Turkey’s corresponding naval buildup is ambitious. It has invested significant political capital in establishing a greater Mediterranean foothold – using drilling operations off the coasts of Cyprus and Greek islets, intrusion in conflicts like Libya’s civil war, and gunboat diplomacy against regional rivals to “reclaim” its maritime dominance.

Still, Turkey’s immediate focus is closer to home: deterring conventional threats along its Mediterranean coastline.

Operational constraints in the southern Mediterranean, logistical challenges, economic and defense limitations, and rising conventional threats will ensure that for now Turkey remains focused on its own backyard, not the dominant Mediterranean power it claims to be.

Turkey’s Vision

It would be an understatement to say that Turkey’s defense posture looks drastically different than it did just a few decades ago.

Until the 1990s, Turkey’s inward focus on its economy, political modernization and infrastructural development, combined with the looming threat of the Soviet Union and its own loyalty to NATO, compelled it to follow a foreign policy based on deterrence rather than expansionism.

But in the 1990s, Turkey and the West began to drift apart. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian threat waned, as did the interests shared between Turkey and the West.

Ankara’s military leadership adopted a “two and one-half war strategy” – the idea that it should be prepared to wage two wars, one to its east and one to its west, simultaneously, while also fighting an ongoing, unconventional “half war” with Kurdish insurgents at home.

The strategy essentially saw Turkey’s location, wedged between the Black and Mediterranean seas, as a vulnerability.

In the 21st century, Turkey began to adopt a more independent, assertive military doctrine.

The discovery of hydrocarbons in Turkey’s periphery piqued Ankara’s interest, particularly as it struggled to diversify its natural gas suppliers, and it needed a navy that could help defend its claim over them.

It continued to drift away from the West as Brussels walked back its commitment to Turkish membership in the European Union and as it continued to butt heads with its NATO allies.

The re-emergence of the Russian threat, an increasingly aggressive Iran and a growing anti-Turkey coalition in the Mediterranean further isolated Ankara.

So it introduced the concept of Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, which has dominated strategic thinking among Turkey’s military brass and nationalist politicians.

The concept asserts that Turkey should work to dominate the Mediterranean and reclaim the mercantile and maritime supremacy that the Ottomans once had.

Essentially, it advocates that Turkey’s location isn’t a vulnerability – it’s an asset that gives the country strategic depth.

The purpose of the strategy is not just to expand Turkish influence abroad but also to fulfill many of Turkey’s domestic and financial imperatives.

Having a strong naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean allows Turkey to assert claims to oil and gas reserves in contested waters there – which may help Ankara eventually achieve energy independence and even become an energy hub.

Boosting Turkey’s own defense industry to reduce its reliance arms imports, which often come with strings attached, is a key component of the domestic agenda of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Investment in indigenous defense manufacturing has introduced a wave of new financial opportunities for the struggling Turkish economy and has increased Turkey’s prestige abroad.

Turkey’s military spending has thus skyrocketed since the 1990s. It went from being the third-largest arms importer to the 14th-largest arms exporter. The country has reduced its arms imports by 48 percent since 2015 and increased its defense budget by 86 percent in the past decade.

Turkey has also launched the highly publicized MILGEM program that will roll out indigenously built corvettes and frigates, Type-214 air independent power submarines and MILDEN attack submarines, as well as torpedoes, missiles and sensory equipment.

It also announced that it will build 24 vessels (four of which are MILGEM frigates) by the Turkish Republic’s 100th anniversary in 2023.

Turkey’s Limitations

Despite these advancements, Turkey’s naval capabilities are still limited. While it’s laying the groundwork to have a navy capable of projecting power by the 2030s and 2040s, its current operational capabilities can’t extend much beyond the Aegean and the southern Mediterranean.

Moreover, though Turkey’s navy is larger than that of its main rival, Greece, there are several other Mediterranean nations with which it must contend Increased patrols and joint maritime exercises involving Greece, France, Italy, Egypt and even Israel have raised the stakes for conventional conflict.

If Turkey poses a serious threat to Greece – say, by violating the partition in Cyprus or attempting to invade Crete – it will have to face a coalition of capable naval forces with substantial combined firepower that would overwhelm Turkey’s own.

Most of Turkey’s naval projects are years – or even decades – away from being operational.

Chief among them is its first amphibious assault ship, the TCG Anadolu, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year. The Anadolu is designed to serve as both a light aircraft carrier and a command center in the Mediterranean.

It can sustain combat missions at farther distances by carrying 14 STOVL fighter jets or heavy-lift helicopters, several amphibious assault vehicles, 29 main battle tanks, and four mechanized, two air-cushioned and two personnel landing vehicles.

With the ability to carry out an amphibious invasion, it would a threat to the sovereignty of small Aegean islands near Turkey’s coast. It could also aid Turkey’s operations in Libya, allowing for quicker reinforcements, deployment of more equipment for mechanized infantry units and greater airpower projection.

On paper, the TCG Andalou appears to close at least some of the gap in Turkey’s Mediterranean capabilities. But the ship alone won’t give Turkey an edge over the combined forces of France, Egypt, Greece and Israel.

The new fleet of locally built ships will assist Turkey’s strategy of defending its perimeter by applying pressure deeper into the Mediterranean, creating new maritime buffers and strengthening its bargaining position against regional rivals.

But over the next decade, it will still have to rely mainly on gunboat diplomacy to achieve its defense objectives. Its focus will remain on its littoral waters and projecting power over weaker actors, like Libya and Cyprus and certain Aegean islands.

This explains why Turkey’s arsenal doesn’t include a destroyer but does include a growing number of frigates and corvettes that can sail between critical sea lanes and islands in shallow waters.

Until Turkey can secure forward bases and a more powerful maritime fleet, its entire defense strategy will struggle to overcome logistical, refueling and funding constraints. Turkey still faces challenges in equipping enough fuel tankers with an escort fleet that can resupply its vessels, aircraft and patrol boats that venture beyond the Aegean. One light carrier can’t do the job on its own.

Moreover, production delays due to COVID-19 and Turkey’s sluggish economy have raised questions over whether Turkey can complete projects on time, let alone begin production on a second planned assault carrier, the TCG Trakya. Its economic woes have also led to slower growth in Turkey’s defense budget since the country’s 2018 recession.

And although the runways of the TCG Anadolu and TCG Trakya have been reportedly designed to also accommodate F-35B Lightning-II jets, Turkey may not even acquire these aircraft given the U.S. decision to cut it out of the F-35 program.

Ankara could theoretically acquire comparable aircraft from the U.K., Spain and Italy, but Europe would be reluctant to arm Turkey with fighter jets that could be used to intimidate other Mediterranean states.

Turkey has been juggling its defense priorities in the Levant, Caucasus, Black Sea, Gulf and Red Sea, but it’s now zeroing in on the Eastern Mediterranean, where it hopes to create the impression that it has an operational edge over its regional rivals.

But while it incrementally builds up its naval capabilities, its focus will remain on coastal defense – no matter how much it touts its Blue Homeland aspirations.

The Four Paths of US-China Relations

There is little question that the future of US-China relations will depend heavily on who leads each country in the years ahead. But in thinking about that future, it would be a mistake simply to assume that the US is heading for a changing of the guard, or that China is fated to have continuity at the top.

Yuen Yuen Ang

ang6_wildpixelGetty Images_chinaUSquestion

ANN ARBOR – There is no bilateral diplomatic relationship more consequential than the one between the United States and China, which affects not only the two countries but all of humanity. And now, the future of this relationship hinges on who will lead each country in the years ahead.

In the US, the next presidential election is barely two months away, and – barring complications – either the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, will be sworn in on January 20, 2021. In China’s case, however, almost everyone assumes that President Xi Jinping will hold the reins of power indefinitely. But while a change in the top Chinese leadership seems improbable, it is not impossible. As such, we should really be considering the possibility of four separate scenarios in Sino-American relations.

First, suppose that Biden wins and China remains under Xi’s leadership for the long term. In a commentary for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden promised that his main foreign-policy priority as president would be to restore America’s global leadership and democratic alliances. 

He wants to invest in infrastructure, education, and research and development. With a Biden administration, one could expect less drama and inflammatory rhetoric toward China.

But tough action against Chinese industrial and foreign policies would no doubt remain on the table. Once America’s commitment to defending a liberal global order was restored, Chinese leaders would restrain their bid for international leadership. If Biden’s agenda were realized, the US would be more secure, and thus less paranoid about China’s rise.1

In the second scenario, Trump pulls off another surprise victory, with profound implications for US-China relations. Whereas Trump’s upset victory in 2016 was widely regarded as a fluke, a second win would have to be taken as a de facto endorsement of his demagogic nationalism and xenophobia. In a deeply divided and insecure country, opposing China might become the one issue that members on both sides of the partisan divide could embrace. 

With eight years of Trump in office, the damage inflicted on America’s global standing would be long-lasting, if not permanent.

True, an optimist might argue that after winning re-election, Trump would soften his stance and focus on doing business with China rather than stoking enmity. But if the past four years have shown us anything, it is that Trump plays only to his base, which responds to emotional appeals, not rational analysis and deliberation. Most likely, winning a second term would embolden the Trump administration to take China-bashing to the extreme.

This scenario would be dreadful for China, but something of a gift for Xi politically. The more the US vilified China, the more that Chinese citizens – even those who resent Xi’s dictatorial control – would rally behind him. 

And within the Communist Party of China (CPC), anyone who dared to criticize Xi would be accused of abetting foreign aggressors, and thus effectively silenced.

Still, a change in China’s top leadership cannot be ruled out. Yes, with China having successfully contained COVID-19 while the US continues to flounder, Xi appears to have won. 

And since he has already done away with constitutional term limits, he could remain China’s supreme leader for life.

Yet beneath this façade of invincibility, Xi should feel just as insecure as Trump does in the wake of the pandemic. Despite the certainty of punishment, some senior CPC members have recently spoken up against him, and on key economic issues, his and the premier’s positions are in open contradiction, an abnormality in Chinese politics. On foreign policy, in particular, Xi’s increasingly aggressive approach has made more enemies for China at a time of unprecedented domestic strain.

To secure the political stability needed for economic growth, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who launched “reform and opening” in the late twentieth century, took pains to establish norms of collective leadership and institutionalized succession. But because Xi has systematically dismantled these norms, the CPC now faces a situation in which any political outcome is possible: Xi could enjoy lifetime tenure, be forced to hand over power in 2022, or be toppled by a sudden coup. The absence of periodic elections should not be taken to mean that Chinese politics is inherently more stable than that of the US or other democracies.

Suppose, for the sake of scenario planning, that a new Chinese leader was negotiating with either Biden or Trump. Under Biden, one could at least expect the US to engage in professional diplomacy. But if a political upset in China were to coincide with another Trump term, all bets would be off.

As the old joke goes, prediction is difficult, especially when it is about the future. No one can say with certainty what will happen in the coming months and years, because the possible outcomes are constantly being changed by current actions and shocks like pandemics and record floods. Even the most carefully laid plans can be scuttled by unexpected developments. 

But what decision-makers can and should do is consider different scenarios based on current features and trends.

To pin all of one’s hopes on an outcome that seems most likely or desirable is to risk succumbing to dangerous complacency. When it comes to the critical issue of US-China relations, the wise approach is to look ahead and imagine all possibilities, however unthinkable they may seem now.

Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the author of How China Escaped the Poverty Trap and China's Gilded Age.

Trump’s International Economic Legacy

If US President Donald Trump loses November’s election, he will most likely leave an insignificant imprint on some parts of the global economic system. But in several others – especially US-China relations – his term in office may well come to be seen as a major turning point.

Jean Pisani-Ferry

pisaniferry113_Thomas Peter-PoolGetty Images_trumpchina

PARIS – It would be foolish to start celebrating the end of US President Donald Trump’s administration, but it is not too soon to ponder the impact he will have left on the international economic system if his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, wins November’s election. In some areas, a one-term Trump presidency would most likely leave an insignificant mark, which Biden could easily erase.

But in several others, the last four years may well come to be seen as a watershed. Moreover, the long shadow of Trump’s international behavior will weigh on his eventual successor.

On climate change, Trump’s dismal legacy would be quickly wiped out. Biden has pledged to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate agreement “on day one” of his administration, achieve climate neutrality by 2050, and lead a global coalition against the climate threat. If this happens, Trump’s noisy denial of scientific evidence will be remembered as a minor blip.

In a surprisingly large number of domains, Trump has done little or has behaved too erratically to leave an imprint. Global financial regulation has not changed fundamentally during his term, and his administration has flip-flopped regarding the fight against tax havens.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have carried on working more or less smoothly, and Trump’s furious tweeting did not prevent the US Federal Reserve from continuing to act responsibly, including by providing dollar liquidity to key international partners during the COVID-19 crisis.

True, Trump has repeatedly spoiled international summits, leaving his fellow leaders flummoxed. But such behavior has been more embarrassing than consequential.

But, Trump will be remembered for his trade initiatives. Although it has always been difficult to determine the real aims of an administration beset by infighting, three key goals now stand out: reshoring of manufacturing, an overhaul of the World Trade Organization, and economic decoupling from China. Each objective is likely to outlast Trump’s tenure, at least in part.

Reshoring looked like a costly fantasy four years ago, and it still is in many respects. As my Peterson Institute colleague Chad Bown has documented, Trump’s chaotic trade war with the world has often hurt US economic interests. But reshoring as a policy objective has gained new life after the pandemic exposed the vulnerability entailed by depending exclusively on global sourcing. Biden has endorsed the idea, and “economic sovereignty” – whatever that means – is now a near-universal new mantra.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer claims that a “reset” of the WTO has been a high priority for the administration. If so, it has made some headway. The other G7 countries now share the long-standing US dissatisfaction with the WTO’s leniency toward China’s government subsidies and weak intellectual-property protection.

There is also a recognition that some US grievances against WTO dispute-settlement procedures (and in particular the so-called Appellate Body) are valid. But whether the battle ends with a reset or the deconstruction of the multilateral trading system remains to be seen.

The major watershed is US-China relations. Although bilateral tensions were apparent before Trump’s election in 2016, nobody spoke of a “decoupling” of two countries that had become tightly integrated economically and financially. Four years later, decoupling has begun on several fronts, from technology to trade and investment. Nowadays, US Republicans and Democrats alike view bilateral economic ties through a geopolitical lens.

It is not clear whether Trump merely precipitated a rupture that was already in the making. He is not responsible for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian assertiveness, and he did not devise the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive transnational infrastructure and credit program.

But it was Trump who ditched his predecessor Barack Obama’s carefully balanced China strategy in favor of a brutally adversarial stance that left no scope for events to take a different course. Whatever the cause of decoupling, there won’t be a return to the status quo.

A Biden administration would also not find it easy to achieve its goal of restoring ties with US allies, like-minded democracies, and partners around the world. Until Trump’s presidency, much of the world had become accustomed to regarding the US as the main architect of the international economic system.

As Adam Posen, also of the Peterson Institute, has argued, the US was a sort of chair-for-life of a global club whose rules it had largely conceived, but still had to abide by. The US could collect dues, but was also bound by duties, and had to forge a consensus on amendments to the rules.

Trump’s trademark has been to reject this approach and treat all other countries as competitors, rivals, or enemies, his overriding objective being to maximize the rent that the US can extract from its still-dominant economic position. “America First” epitomizes his explicit promotion of a narrow definition of the national interest.

Even if the US under Biden were willing to make credible international commitments again, its outlook may change lastingly. The former Trump adviser Nadia Schadlow recently argued that Trump’s tenure will be remembered as the moment when the world pivoted away from a unipolar paradigm to one of great-power competition.

It is by no means obvious that if Biden wins, he will be able to restore the trust of America’s international partners. For all its aberrations, Trump’s presidency may indicate a deeper US reaction to the shift in global economic power, and reflect the American public’s rejection of the foreign responsibilities their country assumed for three-quarters of a century. The old belief among US allies and economic partners that Americans will “ultimately do the right thing,” as Winston Churchill reputedly said, may be gone.

In any event, Trump’s peculiar behavior has made it easy for America’s allies to postpone hard choices. That seems particularly true of Europe. A Biden-led US might seem like a familiar partner to most European leaders. But if it asked them to take sides in the confrontation with China, Europe would no longer be able to put off its own moment of decision.

Jean Pisani-Ferry, a senior fellow at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel and a senior non-resident fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, holds the Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa chair at the European University Institute.

Taiwan claims ‘severe provocation’ after China military drills

Exercises reinforce fears Beijing will raise pressure on security after Covid-19 threat fades

Kathrin Hille in Kaohsiung

Taiwanese F-16 fighter jets fly in formation during an inauguration ceremony in Taichung, Taiwan, last month © REUTERS

Taiwan sounded the alarm over China conducting large-scale joint air and naval exercises inside its air defence buffer zone, a move Taipei denounced as a “severe provocation” and a threat to regional peace and stability.

At a rare press conference called on Thursday night, Taiwan’s defence ministry said almost two dozen Chinese military aircraft and seven naval ships had operated between 7am and noon on Wednesday and Thursday in an area between Pratas, a Taiwan-controlled atoll in the South China Sea, and Taiwan’s south-western coast.

The drill confirms concerns in Taipei that the People’s Liberation Army would ratchet up military pressure closer to Taiwan’s borders once the coronavirus crisis receded in China. A Taiwanese former senior military officer said the Chinese move was the most serious threat to Taiwan’s security since 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into waters just north and south of Taiwan.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack it if the country refuses to submit to Beijing’s control indefinitely.

Major General Young Ching Se, vice-minister in charge of intelligence at Taiwan’s defence ministry, said on Thursday he believed the PLA intended to create a new status quo under which it could regularly operate in the area off the south-west of Taiwan.

“Everyone knows about their intention to take Taiwan. So it is very obvious that they are using the pretext of an exercise to squeeze our operating space,” Maj Gen Young told reporters. “I believe they will continue such activities in the name of drills.”

The exercise area is in international airspace and international waters, but located on Taiwan’s side of the Taiwan Strait median line. The demarcation is an unofficial line of separation which the two parties had long respected to avoid incidents, but the PLA has crossed it several times over the past year. The exercise area is also in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, or ADIZ.

An ADIZ is an area that extends beyond a country’s territorial airspace and is meant to provide a buffer against hostile air incursions. When a foreign aircraft enters the zone without warning, the country scrambles fighters to identify it and chase it away if deemed a threat.

The Chinese incursion comes as the PLA and the US military have entered into open competition. Both have sharply stepped up patrols and exercises in Asia and the western Pacific, particularly around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

Washington and Beijing frequently accuse each other of posing a risk to regional security. Although the US does not have an official alliance with Taiwan, it has a commitment to help the country defend itself.

Military experts said the latest Chinese air manoeuvres were part of a PLA effort to gather electronic signals intelligence. Such activity includes reconnaissance aircraft flying in a zigzag pattern to determine the exact location and operations of enemy radars.

Chang Ching, a research fellow at the Strategic Studies Society ROC and retired Taiwan military officer, said the US military and PLA had conducted such operations in the vicinity of Penghu, an archipelago off Taiwan’s south-western coast, for months.

However, Taiwan’s defence ministry said this week’s exercise was not a response to any US military activity.

Chang Che-ping, deputy defence minister, said on Thursday that the exercise was affecting international flight safety because it took place in an area traversed by international flight routes. It had also had a severe impact on Taiwan’s air defences and regional peace, he added.

“We urge you again, do not underestimate our determination to safeguard our homeland, and do not underestimate the Taiwanese people’s will to preserve their freedom and democracy,” he warned Beijing.