THE CROSSING OF the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk battle group through the Taiwan Strait last year, after being denied a port call in Hong Kong, drew intense attention to the region.
Although the US denied that there had been any military standoff between China and the US during the Kitty Hawk battle group's passage through the Strait, there is no doubt that military intelligence on both sides of the Strait were wholly informed as to when the aircraft carrier entered and exited, as well as whether it had undertaken any military operations.
Why then have both the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries remained silent over the US' denial? There must be political and military considerations that have been concealed.
The US has always claimed freedom of passage through the Taiwan Strait on the grounds that it is international waters. According to the International Law of the Sea, the Taiwan Strait is a non-territorial water-strait and has a passageway of at least 46 nautical miles in width at the narrowest part of the Strait, which is considered to be high seas in terms of navigation. Therefore the US' claims are not illfounded under international law. However, if China considered the whole Taiwan Strait as "internal sea," and limited or prohibited other countries' rights to pass through or fly over the Strait, then it would constitute a violation of international law.
In the coming year, there are five major possibilities out of which a conflict between China and the US may arise over the right to pass through or fly over the Taiwan Strait.
First, the US insists that its warships have the right to "innocent passage" through foreign territorial waters, including Chinese waters on the western side of the Taiwan Strait. However, Chinese law stipulates that foreign naval vessels must obtain authorization prior to passage.
Second, the US insists that military vessels or aircraft have the right to intelligence collection, aircraft landing or lift-off, and military operations while passing or flying through foreign Exclusive Economic Zones(EEZs). Hence, the US has the right to conduct activities of a military nature whilst passing through Chinese waters or Taiwan's EEZs. China denies this right, and thus a US spy plane and Chinese fighter jet collided over the South China Sea in April 2001.
Third, the US senate passed a resolution regarding the ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in December last year, in which it is stipulated that US submarines need not surface while passing through foreign territorial waters; furthermore, it defines the Taiwan Strait as one of the "straits used for international navigation," allowing "transit passage" rights, as outlined in Part III of UNCLOS.
If the US ratified UNCLOS, this could cause conflict with China due to Beijing's interpretation of the rights of vessel passage and aircraft fly-overs in the Taiwan Strait according to international law.
Fourth, China has decided to construct a new commercial aviation route along the western side of the centerline (or "Davis Line") through the Taiwan Strait, and redefine the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR) as the ninth in China's 11 FIRs. This change would significantly influence the national security, aviation routes, and military deployment of Taiwan, Japan and the US.
The US' definition of, as well as its insistence on, right to transit or free passage for military aircraft over the Taiwan Strait could result in conflict once China enhances its air security and control over the centerline of the Strait.
Lastly, whether China's application to the International Civil Aviation Organization for the new route was successful has not yet been revealed.
If approved, why has it not been announced?
Is it because of opposition from Japan and the US?
Or is it lying in wait for crises that may arise before or after the presidential election in March?
Once Chinese military aircraft take advantage of the aviation route to regulate or disrupt air traffic, or even launch military attacks, countries such as Japan and the US will become involved.
On the whole, the Taiwan Strait is a potential point of military conflict between China and the US this year, and deserves our close attention.
Song Yann-huei is a research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica.
TRANSLATED BY ANGELA HONG
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