Taiwan’s radio enthusiasts tune in as PLA, US warplanes crowd sensitive skies
- A band of Taiwanese civilians has been keeping an ear on Beijing’s air force missions and publishing the recordings online
- Former navy radio operator says making information public could boost support for Taiwan’s armed forces, which are dwarfed by Beijing’s
Soon after dawn on a southern Taiwanese beach, Robin Hsu’s iPhone pings with the first radio message of the day from Taiwan’s air force as it warns away aircraft from mainland China.
“Attention!” a voice says on the radio, speaking in Mandarin to a Chinese military plane flying at an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,500 feet). “You have entered our southwestern air defence identification zone and are jeopardising aviation safety. Turn around and leave immediately.”
Although Taiwan’s defence ministry details these almost-daily incursions on its website, including maps outlining the activity, a band of Taiwanese radio enthusiasts like Hsu has been tuning in to related radio traffic and publishing the recordings online.
“The Chinese Communist planes are like flies on your dining table. If you kill them on your plate then your meal is ruined,” said Hsu, 50, a tour guide and a military enthusiast. “All you can do is to wave them away.”
The action ebbs and flows. On one day in May, when Reuters accompanied Hsu, nine other warnings were broadcast to PLA warplanes after the one at dawn.
The PLA aircraft have not fired a shot and have not come near Taiwan’s shores, according to the island’s military.
Halfway through lunch, Hsu’s iPhone – which is linked to a separate radio antenna – tracked another broadcast, this time in English.
“Chinese air force, I am a United States aircraft operating in international airspace and exercising these rights as guaranteed by international law,” the transmission said. “I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states.”
On a flight tracker app, a US military refuelling plane was flying east off Taiwan’s southwest into the Bashi Channel that separates the island from the Philippines.
A spokesman for US Indo-Pacific Command said there were routine flights conducted in international airspace in accordance with international law, and that the language in the broadcast was consistent with US military aviation units operating in the Indo-Pacific.
The same day, Taiwan scrambled jets to warn away six PLA aircraft, including two H-6 bombers and one Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, according to the island’s defence ministry.
Beijing’s defence ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Hsu and his team have set up a dozen reception points on hills across Taiwan. With the help of those stations and flight-tracking apps, Hsu has counted 317 Taiwan warnings to PLA warplanes from the start of the year to early May, 3 per cent more than in the same period a year earlier.
“I want people to know the Chinese Communist planes are very close to us,” said Hsu, who releases his recordings on a Facebook page that has attracted nearly 16,000 followers and is widely tracked by Taiwanese media.
He said making such information public could boost support for Taiwan’s armed forces, which were dwarfed by Beijing’s. Taiwan’s defence ministry said it respected any opinion that helped boost defence, but had no further comment.
On rare occasions, PLA pilots have responded to Taiwan’s radio communications.
“This is China’s People’s Liberation Army. I’m conducting routine exercises. Please do not interrupt my activities,” one message in Mandarin said in late 2020, minutes after Taiwan warned away a mainland Chinese warplane.
Hsu, a former navy radar operator, described a pattern of activities off Taiwan’s southwest in which US military planes, often refuelling and surveillance aircraft, were shadowed by PLA planes, who were warned away by Taiwan’s air force.
Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan’s top military think tank, the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, said Hsu’s efforts helped the public understand the threat from mainland China was “very real and immediate”.
He said the transparency could also help both militaries avoid an accidental conflict.
At one of his reception points, a hilltop cafe overlooking the Taiwan Strait, Hsu said he planned to expand his network to include communications in Taiwan’s northern skies, where the air forces of mainland China, Japan and Taiwan regularly cross paths.
“On the surface, we have peace. But the reality is Chinese Communist planes are flying on our doorstep every day,” he said. “People need to be aware of the crisis.”