February 21, 2024

The balloon flights may, nonetheless, be part of the “gray zone” tactics that China uses to warn Taiwan of its military strength and options, without tipping into baldfaced confrontation. The timing of the balloon flights, close to Taiwan’s election, was telling, said Ko Yong-Sen, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank in Taipei funded by Taiwan’s defense ministry. Mr. Ko has analyzed the pattern of recent sightings.

“It’s more an intimidating effect in what happens to be a quite sensitive time, with we in Taiwan holding our election on Jan. 13,” Mr. Ko said in an interview. China, he said, “may want to tone it down. People say that it has recklessly used major weapons like planes and ships for harassment, so it’s shifted to balloons that can be used for a certain kind of lower-intensity intimidation and harassment.”

In the election, Taiwanese voters will choose a president and legislature, and Beijing has made no secret of wanting the governing Democratic Progressive Party to lose power. The party opposes Beijing’s claims to Taiwan, and has asserted Taiwan’s distinctive identity and claims to nationhood. Decades ago, the party endorsed independence for Taiwan but now says it accepts the more ambiguous status quo of democratic self-determination.

Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, has been leading in most polls up to Wednesday. But Hou Yu-ih, the candidate for the Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China, has trailed Mr. Lai by only a few percentage points in some recent surveys, and the Nationalists may emerge as the biggest party in the legislature, ending the Democratic Progressive Party’s majority.

When asked late last month about the initial reports of balloons near Taiwan, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defense, Wu Qian, did not confirm or deny any flights, but suggested that, as Taiwan was a part of China, any dispute over balloons crossing the median line between the two sides was moot. He also accused the Democratic Progressive Party of whipping up the issue “to swindle votes.”