China’s Hot Air Circus: Balloons Cross Taiwan Strait and Why You Should be Concerned

W. Scott McGill /
W. Scott McGill /

In a bold display of disregard for international norms, six Chinese hot air balloons recently traversed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, setting a new daily record for such incursions. This provocative Act by China, reported by the Taiwanese defense ministry, highlights the escalating regional tensions.

These balloons, hovering at altitudes between 4,572 and 8,230 meters, are not mere playthings. One even dared to fly over the southern part of Taiwan before vanishing. Since December last year, Taiwan has spotted 49 of these balloons near its airspace, with 14 daring to fly over the island. This is not just a breach of airspace; it’s a clear message from China.

The Taiwanese government rightly views these balloon incursions as part of China’s “grey zone” tactics. These are not innocent weather balloons, as China claims, but are suspected to be part of a broader surveillance operation. Remember the incident last year when a Chinese balloon appeared in the U.S.? Given the possible danger, even U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken abandoned his trip to China.

China’s claim that Taiwan is a “rebellious province” and its refusal to rule out force for “reunification” is a blatant display of imperialistic ambition. Taiwan, having been self-governed since 1949 after the Chinese nationalist army retreated there, stands as a beacon of democracy in the face of China’s authoritarian claims.

This “Hot Air” demonstration goes beyond a simple airspace violation as part of a broader effort to scare and pressure Taiwan. The world must recognize these actions for what they are: not just provocations but part of China’s more extensive network of aggressive behavior.

To make matters worse, China sent 18 of its air force planes, including Su-30 fighters, to conduct “joint combat readiness patrols” with warships around Taiwan. This significant military activity is the first since Taiwan’s recent elections.

Taiwan, having just elected Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as president, faces renewed pressure from Beijing. Lai, whom Beijing condemns as a separatist and a harbinger of conflict, has been a vocal advocate for Taiwan’s sovereignty. In response to China’s aggressive maneuvers, Taiwan’s defense ministry detected these aircraft operating off its northern, central, and southwestern regions, with 11 crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait. This line, once an unofficial buffer, is now frequently breached by Chinese aircraft, a move that China justifies by not recognizing the line’s existence.

The United States, closely monitoring Beijing’s actions, has urged restraint and warned against unilateral changes to the status quo. A source familiar with the Biden administration’s perspective anticipates that Beijing might intensify pressure on Taiwan in the coming months, encompassing diplomatic and economic aspects.

President-elect Lai, set to take office on May 20, has extended offers for dialogue with China, only to be rebuffed. He maintains a commitment to peace and stability across the strait, asserting that Taiwan’s future lies in the hands of its people. Vincent Chao, spokesperson for Lai’s campaign, emphasized a strategy of “continuation” and “no surprises,” focusing on strong deterrence in collaboration with the U.S. and other regional allies. The goal is to make any aggressive action by China prohibitively costly while minimizing the risks and costs of inaction.

But why is the U.S. government so involved in the strait?

In the cut-throat global technology arena, the U.S.-China semiconductor rivalry and Taiwan’s strategic importance to the United States converge in a complex geopolitical chess game.

The U.S. and China are ever locked in a fierce battle over semiconductor intellectual property and manufacturing, with the U.S. striving to revitalize its chip production and employing sanctions to hinder China’s quest for self-sufficiency in this pivotal industry. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s significance to the U.S. extends far beyond its geographic size, playing a crucial role in U.S. security and economic prosperity and impacting broader questions of international order and the future of democracy.

The semiconductor industry is a cornerstone of technological advancements like AI and electric vehicles and is central to national security and economic prosperity. Despite the U.S. accounting for a quarter of global semiconductor demand, its manufacturing capacity has dwindled to a mere 12% from 37% in the 1990s. This decline has raised alarms about national security, especially given China’s ambitious efforts to dominate this essential sector.

The U.S. response, embodied in the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, aims to bolster domestic chip production with a $52.7 billion investment over five years. However, the Act’s effectiveness is challenged by stringent conditions imposed on companies seeking substantial funding, potentially limiting its impact on the industry.

The fact that 90% of the world’s most powerful processor chips are made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) shows how much of a difference in manufacturing costs between the U.S. and Taiwan. This cost difference, coupled with the profitability of the semiconductor industry, suggests that only less profitable companies might engage with the CHIPS Act in its current form.

As the U.S. continues to leverage sanctions against China, and with the European Union and Japan ramping up their semiconductor initiatives, the global landscape of chip manufacturing is significantly transforming. These developments underscore the interconnected nature of global technology and security, with Taiwan at the epicenter of these dynamic shifts.