In recent years, China has pressured Taiwan through various means to merge with the mainland. One of China’s most obvious pressure tools involves drone flights over Taiwan’s outer islands, frequently using small civilian models.
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Many experts believe these drone overflights are part of China’s broader propaganda campaign. Recently, civilian drones have started participating in this propaganda campaign, photographing troops and delivering packages to the Taiwanese islands.
Mainlanders have described these drone overflights as an attempt to convey their support for reunification.
Last week, a mainlander posted as Quanzhou Captain shared a video of a drone flying from Xiamen to nearby Lieyu Island, about five kilometers (three miles) away.
The report said the unmanned aerial vehicle also dropped a note to troops stationed there and a bag of snacks which Taiwan TV said were “unaffordable on the mainland”.
He uploaded a video to Weibo in which the Taiwanese outpost, the soldiers, their weapons and the dropped package are all visible. A few days earlier, he posted another video of a similar theft by his friend, which featured Taiwanese soldiers, according to the report.
Another video of Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at a drone went viral on Chinese social media in late August.
“The mentality of most airman friends who fly in Taiwan is to declare sovereignty and [show our] yearning for reunification,” the drone user said.
It came as tensions in the Taiwan Strait remained high following extensive military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army conducted around the island in retaliation for the visit of the Speaker of the House of States. United, Nancy Pelosi, early August.
Drones, especially civilian models, are less expensive and are believed to elicit less feedback than manned military aircraft. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s vow to retaliate and China’s repeated drone flights have raised concerns of an escalation.
The Quanzhou captain claimed he was acting “out of curiosity” about the Taiwanese base and added that other drone enthusiasts were engaging in similar behavior.
In less than 30 minutes, he claimed, his drone had flown from Xiamen to Lieyu at a height of about 500 meters (1,600 feet) and in airspace with “no flight restrictions on [manufacturer] The DJI system.
Although he had used a drone to photograph his city for nearly five years, the Quanzhou captain said it was the first time he had done such an action.
“Those who fly drones in Taiwan pay close attention to current events… Most of my flying friends, including mainlanders, have no hatred or enmity towards the Taiwanese people, but hate the forces Taiwan separatists and those they are brainwashing,” he said.
Beijing’s position on these civilian drone flights
Publicly, Beijing seems favorable to these flights. In August, a drone was detected hovering over the Quemoy island chain, known as Kinmen. Zhao Lijian, spokesman for Beijing’s foreign ministry, insisted there was no cause for concern.
Beijing, however, turns a blind eye when something goes wrong. A few days later, Wang Wenbin, another spokeswoman, chose not to go into detail about an event in which a drone launched from the mainland was shot down.
Fu Qianshao, a retired PLA Air Force equipment specialist, was quoted by the SCMP as saying, “This clearly shows that there are no restrictions on drones flying to Kinmen, while ‘there are restrictions preventing drones from flying to areas like the airport’.
According to Fu, mainlanders mocked the Taiwanese forces by flying drones over them and taking pictures of them. As civilian drones can be weaponized, this could also be interpreted as a warning that could lower the morale of Taiwanese forces.
The Chinese militia, a crucial reserve force in the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis between the 1950s and 1970s, had also improved its drone reconnaissance capabilities.
Most of the drones used in recent overflights have been labeled civilian by Taiwanese authorities, but the Chinese military has significantly developed a range of unmanned planes and boats.
On the other hand, Taiwan is increasing its investment in military drones after learning of their usefulness during the conflict in Ukraine. According to the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, the first 14 of 50 short-range tactical drones will arrive by the end of the year.
The island nation also announced that it was procuring four MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones. Additionally, Taipei is bolstering its anti-drone capabilities, with plans to build radar and defense systems to track, block and possibly shoot down drones flying over its islands.
However, experts predict that more such drone flights are likely to take place near Kinmen and Matsu. They also suggest that China could increase coercion of the gray zone around the main island of Taiwan.