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China is subtly increasing military pressure on Taiwan without declaring an invasion

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

China has been stepping up military pressure on Taiwan, but subtly. A month ago, a record number of Chinese fighter planes - 103 of them - flew around Taiwan in just one day. It's meant to wear Taiwan down without actually invading. NPR's Emily Feng has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #1: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Robin Hsu is among a group of Taiwanese military enthusiasts who obsessively track this signal communication Chinese pilots leave as their fighter planes harass Taiwan each day.

ROBIN HSU: (Through interpreter) I intercepted Chinese pilot chatter at 12:04 a.m., 4:04 a.m., 7:07 a.m. Taiwan's air force has issued six warnings already.

FENG: I met with Hsu outside a Taiwanese air base earlier this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Hsu worries there will be a miscommunication, a misfire even, between militaries that could spiral into conflict. His worries are fueled by the daily Chinese military chatter he picks up around Taiwan this year - chatter like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #3: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...In which a Chinese pilot warns the U.S. to stay far away. This kind of military harassment has been happening ever since last summer, when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. It was a trip that infuriated Beijing, and it started looking for ways to up the ante on Taiwan.

ALESSIO PATALANO: Means other than war are preferable.

FENG: That's Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy at King's College London. He says those means are gray-zone tactics, meaning using military and economic coercion to intimidate Taiwan, like sending planes or banning Taiwanese goods to punish its farmers.

PATALANO: The PRC has been committed to push the envelope in terms of what is acceptable level of the use of force underneath open war.

FENG: In other words, no hot war, no invasion, but a constant reminder that China has its sights on Taiwan. Lee Hsi-Ming is a retired Taiwanese admiral and a former defense chief. He says this strategy is a new normal and fears that China is using it to practice for the real thing.

LEE HSI-MING: They can practice their military requirement as they need, and even they can test the response capability from the Taiwanese military.

FENG: But Taiwan is limited in how it can respond to Chinese coercion. For example, Lee says, every time a Chinese military plane or ship gets too close, Taiwan has to scramble and send its own pilots or ships. And China just has way more of everything. Plus, Lee says, Taiwan doesn't want to make things worse.

LEE: Because we don't want escalate the tension. And in order to maintain our morale, then we have to passively response for this kind of gray-zone aggression.

FENG: All this is straining Taiwanese pilots. Pilot Hou Sheng Jun is trained to fly the American-made F-16 fighter plane, and he describes the regimen his fellow pilots are on to intercept Chinese planes.

HOU SHENG JUN: (Through interpreter) You have only about six minutes to scramble, and there are staff on call awaiting orders at all times to make an emergency takeoff.

FENG: So these constant sorties are increasing Taiwan's defense costs and tiring out pilots. And analysts believe this will only continue, especially in the run-up to Taiwan's January presidential elections. Here's Tsui Chin-Kuei, a politics professor at Taiwan's National Chung Hsing University. He explains, through these daily maneuvers, China is trying to scare Taiwanese voters into being more pro-China.

CHIN-KUEI TSUI: Opinion or perspective from Taiwanese nationals might affect the government's policy, and government's policy might also affect U.S.-Taiwan-China - the triangle relationship.

FENG: So far, the gray-zone tactics seem to be having the opposite effect in Taiwan. But China could escalate, experts say. And so enormous responsibility now lies on the shoulders of pilots like 26-year-old Wendy Wen, who flies the Taiwan-designed fighter plane the IDF.

WENDY WEN: (Through interpreter) Of course it's a tiring job. We have sentries running 24-hour shifts keeping watch.

FENG: She has a message for her fellow young Taiwanese citizens.

WEN: (Through interpreter) We hope more people join the air force in order to give our existing pilots more time to rest and recover, and we need to recover in order to fly longer and farther.

FENG: Longer, given the heightened tensions around Taiwan because the island is trying to figure out how to outlast a bigger opponent.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taitung, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.