China’s defense ministry has released a map of six zones around the island where it plans to hold air and sea drills as well as long-range live-fire drills as part of what a spokesman described as a “containment”.
Ships and aircraft have warned to stay out of the areas during the drills.
The exercise areas announced by Beijing extend well into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone — an airspace reserve commonly referred to as the ADIZ — and in some cases trespassing the island’s territorial airspace, an area recognized by international law as extending 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from the coast.
Analysts say it’s an extremely challenging move.
Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said China is going “much further than ever before” in positioning its military near the coast of Taiwan.
Beijing’s threats have sparked much debate about what exactly constitutes Taiwan’s airspace and if recognized by international law.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is a country’s airspace?
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country’s territorial limits extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from its coastline.
The above area is considered the country’s territorial airspace, according to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which also states that government or military aircraft may not fly over another country’s territory without permission.
China is a signatory to UNCLOS, signing on 10 December 1982 and ratifying it in 1996. Taiwan is not.
If Taiwan is not an independent country, does it have its own airspace?
Taiwan’s disputed status makes it difficult to answer this question definitively.
While Taiwan is a self-governing republic, mainland China insists it has sovereignty over the island and strongly opposes any suggestion it could be considered an independent country.
Most countries in the world do not recognize Taiwan as an independent country — maintaining diplomatic relations with Beijing rather than Taipei.
But Drew Thompson, a visiting senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former US Defense Department official, said most of the world treats Taiwan as if it were an independent country — and for For this reason, it should be considered to have its own airspace.
“The reality is that Taiwan exists. Taiwan is autonomous. It is essentially independent of any other country. It elects its own government, collects its own taxes, defends its borders. So for all intents and purposes, Taiwan is a country,” Thompson said. he said.
“Based on that principle, then we might decide that international law applies, so Taiwan’s airspace extends 12 miles beyond the baseline. Beyond the 12-mile limit is international waters, international airspace.” , he added.
Thompson said there was also a matter of precedent, and that even China’s military seemed to acknowledge it implicitly.
Despite “the fact that the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) does not recognize Taiwan or China does not recognize Taiwan, they have respected Taiwan’s airspace,” he said.
Chinese commercial airlines also respected Taiwan’s airspace, Thompson said, recognizing a “treaty that effectively treats Taiwan as independent under civil aviation guidelines.”
However, China maintains that since Taiwan is its sovereign territory, its military aircraft do not need permission from Taiwan or any other entity to fly into the island’s territorial airspace. In Beijing’s eyes, Taiwan’s airspace is effectively China’s airspace.
So could China fly its military planes over Taiwan?
“It would go against international law, but international law is weak and open to interpretation by each country that decides whether or not they want to follow it or enforce it,” Thompson said.
But what is “international law?” The International Court of Justice in The Hague says it evaluates cases based on “international conventions,” such as treaties such as UNCLOS. “international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law”, in other words, what countries usually do on a given occasion. and “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.”
The United Nations website says international law is upheld “in many ways — by courts, tribunals, multilateral treaties — and by the Security Council, which can authorize peacekeeping missions, impose sanctions, or authorize the use of force when there is a threat to international peace and security, if the deems this necessary”.
But remember, the five permanent members of the Security Council, including both China and the United States, have veto power so they can block any attempt by the UN to enforce international law.
“You’ve seen China ignore the rules of international law left and right for decades, especially in the South China Sea,” Thompson said, referring to the military installations China has built on various islands despite its claims for sovereignty were rejected by an international court. in 2016.
What is the difference between airspace and air defense reconnaissance zone?
Taiwan has often been in the headlines recently when Chinese warplanes entered its air defense reconnaissance zone.
On Tuesday, for example, Taiwan said 21 Chinese aircraft entered its ADIZ, and there have been near-daily incursions by PLA warplanes over the past month.
However, these zones are not the same as territorial airspace. Rather, they are unilaterally declared buffer zones that extend beyond territorial airspace, created specifically to give defense forces time to react when foreign aircraft approach. Consequently, not all countries have an air defense identification zone.
The US Federal Aviation Administration defines zones as “a designated area of airspace over land or water within which a country requires the immediate and positive detection, location, and air traffic control of aircraft in the interest of national security of the country”.
Mercedes Trent of the Federation of American Scientists wrote in a 2020 review that, “it is common for foreign aircraft entering such zones to identify themselves and seek prior approval from the country controlling the zone before entering.”
If foreign aircraft enter an air defense reconnaissance zone without permission, the home jurisdiction often scrambles fighter jets to warn off the intruders. This has happened on several occasions when Chinese warplanes have entered Taiwan’s air defense reconnaissance zone in recent years.
How did Taiwan create the Air Defense Identification Zone?
The island’s air defense identification zone was actually the brainchild of the United States, which created similar zones for Japan, South Korea and the Philippines to try to protect them from Chinese and Russian overflights, according to Trent, of the Federation American Scientists.
Part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone actually extends over the Chinese mainland, but Chinese flights are only contested by Taiwan if they cross the median line — halfway between the island and the mainland over the Taiwan Strait .
Does China have an Air Defense Identification Zone?
Yes. It lies over the East China Sea and covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain, which is controlled by Japan.
China’s air defense recognition zone overlaps those of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. However, it does not cover the island of Taiwan itself, stopping short of its northern tip.