Taiwan’s government has just announced plans to develop its first comprehensive counter-drone system to defend itself against possible intrusions and spying by China. The decision, announced in late August, came just days after an unidentified drone suspected of being launched by China flew low over a Taiwanese military installation at Kinmen and began recording video, the Taiwanese government claims. A dozen Taiwanese soldiers at the base noticed the low-flying aircraft and began trying to pelt it with rocks. Taiwanese military surveillance recorded the intrusion and a 15-second video clip documenting the incident has been circulating on YouTube for weeks.
Beijing has yet to confirm or deny publicly that its government flew the drone in question. But military analysts say the incident seems to fit a pattern of rising tensions between the US and China and Taiwan following the visit of US congressional leader Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August. Beijing condemned the visit, calling it a breach of protocol. While in Taiwan, Pelosi publicly reaffirmed America’s long-standing support for Taiwan’s full independence, while Beijing continues to insist that the island still belongs to China and that Beijing will one day reclaim it formally.
Over the years, the US and China, anxious to deepen their trade relationship, and already at odds over China’s expanding military presence in the Pacific, generally avoid bringing up the Taiwan issue for fear of undermining their expanding bilateral ties.
But since Pelosi’s visit, US-Chinese diplomatic relations have grown frosty. Washington and Beijing have exchanged harsh words while also conducting hostile military posturing – some call it “saber-rattling” – in the Pacific. Last month’s drone intrusion seems to fit this same broad pattern, with China creating a provocation, as a form of psychological warfare, but also as a means of gauging Taiwanese defense and intelligence capabilities, defense analysts say.
It’s not quite clear what kind of counter-drone system Taiwan actually has in mind. Most likely, it will be a ground-based system that can detect future intrusions from a distance and also, possibly, identify the perpetrator. Taiwan already has a rudimentary drone defense system in place to counter intrusions by civilian drones. In addition, its 2021 defense budget called for the construction of a military counter-drone capability but did not specify a timetable for its construction. However, in recent days, Taiwan has expanded upon that plan, saying a counter-drone defense would now be constructed at 45 different bases across the island by 2026, with the priority placed on the outermost islands where skirmishes with China have previously occurred.
The recent drone incident clearly caught Taiwan by surprise. Officially, the nation’s defense ministry already has a protocol in place to deal with such intrusions. It begins with audio warnings and flares but also includes combat-ready forces taking up tactical positions and assuming an aggressive combat-readiness posture, if required. In fact, none of those protocols appear to have been followed during the latest incident at Kinmen.