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Taiwan accuses China of gray zone tactics by flying balloons

After Taiwan spotted Chinese balloons flying over its main island, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) in Taipei accused Beijing of conducting ‘cognitive warfare’ against Taiwanese people just days before the general election. 

Two more Chinese balloons were detected crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which serves as the de facto boundary between Taiwan and China, on Friday. One of them flew over the Taiwan island itself, the ministry said Saturday in a strongly-worded statement.

On Jan. 13, the Taiwanese go to polls in presidential and parliamentary elections seen as vital for cross-strait relations.

The MND only began disclosing China’s balloon incursions in December 2023 and has so far reported the sighting of 19 balloons, including six that entered the island’s airspace.

An airspace is a portion of the atmosphere above a country’s territory, to which it holds exclusive sovereignty.

Experts say the balloons are likely meteorological as most of them fly at a relatively low altitude.

The MND said, according to their analyses, “the main purpose of the recently detected airborne balloons is to conduct gray zone activities, attempting to use cognitive warfare to affect the morale of Taiwanese people.”

Cognitive warfare, often known as psychological warfare, refers to activities designed to control the mental state and behavior of other people.

The drifting paths of the balloons “posed a serious threat to the safety of many international flights,” the ministry said in a statement sent to reporters.

It added that the Taiwanese military is keeping a close watch and would notify civil aviation authorities about any new developments, while “condemning the Chinese Communist Party for its disregard of aviation safety and for the safety of passengers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and internationally.”

‘Hyping China’s threat’?

Wendell Minnick, a Taipei-based veteran Chinese military watcher, said the balloons could be an air traffic problem for airliners at 30,000 ft (9.1km).

“Sucking one of these into the engine would result in a crash,” Minnick told Radio Free Asia. 

“But these weather balloons are not unusual; they come from two different weather balloon stations in China,” said Minnick. “Now that Taiwan’s MND has begun mentioning them, they have to keep doing so.”

Chinese media outlets, meanwhile, said they were “harmless weather balloons” and accused the Taiwanese government of “hyping the mainland threat.”

“It’s evident that weather balloons pose no threat to anyone, however, media outlets in the U.S. and Taiwan island use them to perpetuate the ‘mainland threat theory’,” said the state-run Global Times in an editorial on Thursday. 

The Global Times mentioned the incident that happened in early 2023 when U.S. authorities accused China of flying a spy balloon over the continental U.S.

In the so-called “2023 Chinese balloon incident,” the Pentagon sent a stealth F-22 Raptor fighter jet to shoot down what it said was a Chinese high-altitude surveillance platform in the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 4.

China said it was a weather balloon that was blown off course, but the incident led to further tensions in the already problematic China-U.S. relations.

Edited by Taejun Kang.