China’s Defense Ministry released a map of six areas around the island where it plans to conduct air and sea drills as well as long-range live-fire drills, as part of what a spokesperson said. described as a “blockade”.
Ships and planes were warned to stay out of areas during exercises.
The exercise areas announced by Beijing extend well into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone – a buffer of airspace commonly referred to as ADIZ – and in some cases encroaching on the island’s territorial airspace, an area recognized by international law as extending 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) from shore.
Analysts say it’s an extremely provocative move.
Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said China was going “much further than it has ever gone before” by placing its military assets near off the coast of Taiwan.
Beijing’s threats have sparked much discussion 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?
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country’s territorial boundaries extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) 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 cannot fly over the territory of another country without permission.
China is a signatory to UNCLOS, signing it on December 10, 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 definitively answer this question.
While Taiwan is a self-governing democracy, mainland China insists it has sovereignty over the island and fiercely opposes any suggestion that 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.
However, Drew Thompson, a visiting senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a former U.S. Department of Defense official, said most countries in the world treat Taiwan as if it’s was an independent country – and for this reason it must be considered to have its own airspace.
“The reality is that Taiwan exists. Taiwan is self-governing. It is effectively independent of any other country. It elects its own government, collects its own taxes, defends its own borders. So, for all intents and purposes, Taiwan is a country,” Thompson said. said.
“Under that principle, then maybe we decide that international law applies, in which case Taiwan’s airspace extends 12 miles beyond its baseline. Beyond the limit 12 miles is international waters, international airspace,” he added.
Thompson said there was also a matter of precedent and even the Chinese military seemed to tacitly acknowledge this.
Despite “the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) not recognizing Taiwan, or China not recognizing Taiwan, they have respected Taiwan’s airspace,” he said.
Chinese commercial airlines have also respected Taiwan’s airspace, Thompson said, acknowledging a “convention 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 in the island’s territorial airspace. In Beijing’s eyes, Taiwan’s airspace is essentially China’s airspace.
So, could China fly its military planes over Taiwan?
“It would be against international law, but international law is fragile and open to interpretation by each country deciding whether or not they want to follow it or apply it,” Thompson said.
But what is “international law”? The International Court of Justice in The Hague says it assesses cases based on “international conventions,” such as treaties like UNCLOS; “international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law”, ie what countries usually do in a given circumstance; and “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations”.
United Nations website says international law is respected “in many ways — by courts, tribunals, multilateral treaties — and by the Security Council, which can approve peacekeeping missions, impose sanctions or authorize the use of force in cases threat to international peace and security, if it deems it necessary.”
But remember that the five permanent members of the Security Council, including China and the United States, have veto power, so they can block any attempt by the UN to apply international law.
“You’ve seen China ignore the norms of international law left and right for decades, especially in the South China Sea,” Thompson said, referring to military installations China has built on various islands despite the rejection of its sovereignty claims by an international tribunal. in 2016.
What is the difference between airspace and an air defense identification zone?
Taiwan has often made headlines recently when Chinese warplanes entered its air defense identification zone.
On Tuesday, for example, Taiwan said 21 Chinese planes entered its ADIZ, and there have been almost daily incursions by PLA fighter jets over the past month.
However, these areas are not the same as territorial airspace. Rather, they are unilaterally declared buffer zones that extend beyond territorial airspace, which are specifically put in place to give defensive forces time to react when approaching foreign aircraft. Therefore, not all countries have an air defense identification zone.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration defines zones as “a designated area of airspace over land or water in which a country requires the immediate and positive identification, location, and control of air traffic of aircraft in the interest of the national security of the country”.
Mercedes Trent of the Federation of American Scientists wrote in a 2020 review that “It is customary for foreign aircraft entering such areas to identify themselves and seek prior permission from the country controlling the area before entering “.
If foreign aircraft enter an Air Defense Identification Zone without permission, the originating jurisdiction will often scramble fighter aircraft to warn the intruders. This has happened many times when Chinese fighter jets entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in recent years.
How did Taiwan set up its Air Defense Identification Zone?
The island’s Air Defense Identification Zone was actually the brainchild of the United States, which set up similar zones for Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in an attempt to protect them from Chinese and Russian overflights, according to Trent of the Federation of American Scientists.
Part of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone actually extends across the Chinese mainland, but Chinese flights are only challenged by Taiwan if they cross the median line – the halfway point between the island and the mainland above the Taiwan Strait.
Does China have an air defense identification zone?
Yes. It sits above the East China Sea and covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain, which is controlled by Japan.
China’s air defense identification zone overlaps those of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. However, it does not cover the island of Taiwan itself, stopping just short of its northern tip.