Rear Admiral Chang Feng-chiang (張鳳強), until recently commander of the Republic of China (ROC) Navy’s 168th Fleet, was given a major demerit following a military investigation and moved to a different post over an incident during a naval exercise late last month. Chang strayed beyond the designated area of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and into the territorial waters of Japan’s Yonaguni Island, where the vessel under his command remained for 11.5 hours.
The whole affair has caused quite a stir, with some saying that the disciplinary action was a show of weakness on our part to Japan, and that this has damaged our standing. People are also questioning why Chang has been singled out for discipline. He was not the only person responsible for the incident.
There are academics specializing in military affairs, but from the arguments we have been hearing regarding international law and diplomatic implications, it seems certain commentators have a poor grasp of international law.
For a start, the idea that this incident is “tantamount to unequivocally declaring the abandonment of our interests, constricting our rights of sovereignty and jurisdiction,” and that it is detrimental to our claims of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) and maritime rights in the area, betrays a degree of confusion over the facts of the matter.
The warship was outside the territorial waters of Yonaguni Island, at quite a considerable distance from the Diaoyutais, and the supposition that this in some way damages our claim to sovereignty over the Diaoyutais holds little water.
Regarding the disciplinary action, the contention that this was a show of weakness to Japan is even less justified. Our warships were positioned just outside Yonaguni’s territorial waters for more than 10 hours. Japan dispatched surveillance aircraft to monitor the event and made inquiries through diplomatic channels to understand the nature of the situation. Any country would do the same given the similar circumstances.
Legally speaking, our warships were positioned in overlapping areas of Japan’s and Taiwan’s economic waters, in which both countries enjoy freedom of navigation and the right to perform military exercises. However, because Japan claims jurisdiction over the waters to the east of the imaginary demarcation line both countries hold, and these waters indeed border on the territorial waters of an island they control, Japan’s conduct was entirely reasonable.
Had Japanese warships appeared in waters to the west of the demarcation line in economic waters shared by both countries, we would naturally also have paid attention, just as we would have attempted to ascertain the intent of the other party. This is normal: It has nothing to do with intimidation, nor is it a show of weakness.
Some people contend that disciplining Chang for straying beyond the ADIZ will limit our options in the future, and also that it is unwise to restrict ourselves to conducting military exercises within the ADIZ. If this really is the case, and we are going to be punishing personnel for this, I would agree that it is unwise. However, if you look at Taiwan’s naval exercises over previous years, they certainly have not been restricted to the ADIZ. Given that the ROC Navy is not structured as an offensive force, and is essentially defensive in nature, it is free to conduct military exercises out at sea, so long as these are carried out in international waters and not within the territorial waters of other nations. For example, the navy goes far and wide on annual goodwill tours and inspections of distant territories such as the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — evidence if any were needed that these operations are not limited in scope to the ADIZ.