Frequent aggressive sorties by PLA warplanes into Taiwan's air-defence zone have prompted a proposed increase of nearly 10% in the island's air force maintenance budget.
According to a defence ministry budget proposal sent to the legislature for review, the air force has listed NT$29.2 billion (US$1 billion) for maintenance and operational facility procurements for its aircraft for the financial year 2022, up 9.8% from this year, and a 56% rise since 2016 when Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president.
The sharp increases over the years have been mainly due to the growing tensions between Taipei and Beijing, which has escalated the number of warplanes approaching the self-ruled island – especially in the past two years – as it flexes its muscles across the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing considers Taiwan as part of its territory, to be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary. It has suspended talks and exchanges with the island, staged war games nearby and poached seven of its diplomatic allies since Tsai led her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party to power and refused to accept the one-China principle.
Simon Song/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
In October before he left office, former defence minister Yen Te-fa admitted to the legislature that the air force scrambled jets every time PLA warplanes approached the island's air defence identification zone (ADIZ), at a cost of NT$25.5 billion last year.
Air force officials have also said that the maintenance budget, usually planned two years in advance, had been affected by the rapid increase in PLA warplane sorties in the past few years, prompting the air force to raise its funding needs for the next financial year.
According to a military source, the cost of scrambling jets to shadow PLA warplanes adds up to at least NT$1 million per hour, including fuel, maintenance and other operational costs.
Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defence and Security Research, said on Tuesday the funding increase was necessary to uphold operational performance of the island's warplanes in response to the PLA air intrusions.
"The air force also needs to buy new parts and facilities for its aircraft to make sure that its fleet remains in good condition," he said.
The People's Liberation Army has so far carried out some 435 sorties since January into the Taiwan ADIZ, mostly in the southwest, according to the island's defence ministry – up from 380 in the whole of last year.
In the sixth such flight this month, a PLA Y-8 electronic warfare plane entered Taiwan's southwest ADIZ on Tuesday, following four PLA fighter jets, the ministry said. The island responded with radio warnings and deployed air defence missile systems to track the planes, it said.
Just two days earlier, 19 PLA warplanes – 14 fighter jets, four bombers and an anti-submarine warplane – flew into the southwestern corner of Taiwan's ADIZ. Military experts on the island said the incursion was partly to intimidate the island but also aimed to familiarise the pilots with the flight route to the Bashi Channel, frequently used by US warships.
Sunday's mission – the largest since June when the PLA sent 28 warplanes to the island's southwest ADIZ – prompted a call from former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo for the US to support Taiwan. "The United States must always stand with Taiwan and for freedom," he said on Twitter.
Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), said the DPP government also needed to shoulder part of the responsibility for the frequent incursions by PLA warplanes.
"The rising military tension between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is linked to the DPP government's repeated denials of the legitimacy and the historical heritage of the Republic of China [Taiwan's official title]," the KMT said on Tuesday.
The KMT said that, although the DPP government had not announced Taiwan's independence, Tsai and some of her officials had been doing all they could to "push for de jure independence, which is the main cause of cross-strait instability".
The KMT also asked Beijing – which has threatened to attack if Taiwan declares independence – to stop its military intimidation of the island and renounce the use of force against it, saying repeated threats would only fuel cross-strait tensions and public resentment.