Taipei seeks to balance assertive response against risk of sparking actual conflict Soldiers on the Taiwanese-controlled Kinmen island fired at the drone which then flew towards the Chinese city of Xiamen in the background © An Rong Xu/Getty Image

Taiwan has begun targeting Chinese drones flying over its outlying islands for the first time, highlighting the risk that Beijing’s military pressure on Taipei could lead to actual conflict. Soldiers on Kinmen, a Taiwanese-controlled island just off the Chinese city of Xiamen, shot at a Chinese drone for the first time on Tuesday afternoon, the Army Kinmen Defence Command said. The uncrewed vehicle then flew away in the direction of Xiamen, it added. “According to procedure, we warn, report, try to expel with measures such as flares, and if that fails, we fire shots,” said Major General Chang Jung-shun, spokesman for the command. The more assertive approach comes as Taipei seeks to balance the risk of sparking outright conflict against its desire to block China from demonstrating effective control over nearby waters and airspace or even Taiwanese territory. “Such activities are presumably all part of Chinese grey-zone tactics to wear down Taiwan’s military,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.

“While the military threat from small commercially-available unarmed drones is relatively minor, Taiwan still needs to find means to deter such activities lest it set a tactical precedent for larger, armed unmanned aerial vehicles entering the country’s airspace above Taiwanese military installations,” Gady said. Earlier on Tuesday, President Tsai Ing-wen told troops in Penghu, an archipelago off Taiwan’s west coast: “The more the enemy provokes, the more calm we must be. We will not provoke disputes, and we will exercise self-restraint, but it does not mean that we will not counter.” Early this month, China conducted a week of unprecedented military exercises in response to a visit to Taipei by US House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The drills included firing missiles over Taiwan proper for the first time, sailing closer to the island than ever before, and flying several military-grade uncrewed vehicles over Kinmen. Since the official end of the manoeuvres on August 10, Taiwan’s military has reported several incursions of civilian-use drones over military installations on Kinmen and adjacent islets and waters. The defence ministry recorded one such overflight on each of Saturday, Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, it said four uncrewed vehicles appeared over Kinmen and environs. Analysts said uncrewed aerial vehicles, or UAVs, changed the dynamics of how a conflict could start or develop because they allowed the deployment of military systems without the risk of suffering casualties. “They are a tool that allows much more flexibility for the deploying force in terms of escalation dynamics-managing,” said Jake Harrington, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.

Over the past week, footage from such drone flights that shows Taiwanese soldiers looking up, running around, pointing their guns and even throwing rocks has appeared on Chinese social media. According to senior Taiwanese government officials, how to respond to drone incursions is one of the priority areas of a review the administration is conducting of China’s heightened military activity. Analysts said UAVs flying over military installations would meet the criteria for hostile intent under which Taiwanese unit commanders had the right and obligation to self-defence, but that there was not necessarily a need to shoot them down. “Taiwan can deploy electronic warfare capabilities,” said Gady, citing technology that could force a drone to land or to return to its remote controller or departure point. In May, Taiwan’s military approved $146mn in investment in anti-drone defence systems for its bases, but installation has yet to be completed. The defence ministry also plans to deploy an indigenously-developed system for countering uncrewed aircraft systems from next year.

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