The flights “clearly and unmistakably displayed China’s sovereignty over Taiwan,” the Global Times, a pugnaciously nationalist Chinese newspaper, said in an editorial, adding, “The greater the number of combat planes gathering together, the more it shows that our military is forming a powerful wartime aerial assault force.”
China’s flights into the Taiwanese zone usually feature slower-moving reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft, as well as fighter jets, according to records compiled by Gerald C. Brown, a defense analyst in Washington. But this year, Mr. Brown’s data indicates, the Chinese air force has sent bombers more often — an intimidating step, because they could more likely carry out a real attack.
The large-scale night flights also suggested that Chinese pilots had honed their abilities to fly their J-16 fighter jets in darkness, said Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, which is backed by Taiwan’s government.
“They are trying to show all-weather capability,” said Mr. Su. “They want to show that they can fight battles in the daytime and try to strike at nighttime.”
By the end of 2019, China had around 1,500 fighter jets and 450 bombers and attack planes, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 report on the People’s Liberation Army. Taiwan had 400 fighters and no bombers.
Taiwan’s security increasingly depends on the United States, which provides most of its weapons. Under a 1979 law, the United States could intervene in an attempted military takeover of Taiwan, but it is not obliged to do so.
Sometimes, China’s flights into Taiwan’s air zone appear to be a warning in response to specific events. Last year, Beijing sent 37 warplanes toward Taiwan over a two-day span that featured a visit to the island by a U.S. official and a memorial service for Lee Teng-hui, a former president who completed Taiwan’s transition to democracy and was loathed by Beijing for asserting the island’s self-determination.