I myself have been on a naval expedition out to Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest of the Spratlys, to plant a flag on the Jhongjhou Reef (中洲礁) to “strengthen our sovereignty claim.”
According to the navy, however, the reason for the disciplinary action in this case was that “no changes should be made to the battle plan without the prior consent of the navy command,” and that Chang’s actions had “contravened exercise discipline.”
In other words, it is not that military exercises are restricted to the ADIZ. Chang was disciplined because this year’s exercises were to be carried out within this area, and the fleet commander had gone beyond the area boundaries without first receiving clearance from navy command.
There have also been questions about why it was decided to single out Chang for discipline, and whether the punishment itself was excessive. Again, this has nothing to do with autonomy or claims thereof. Nevertheless, it was acknowledged that enormous amounts of time and money go into training a naval commander, and Chang still has recourse within the system. If he is found not to have been at fault, or if the punishment is later deemed to be excessive, then it is right that he will be treated fairly.
The fact that others also share responsibility for the incident, or that others may have been guilty of similar transgressions in the past and have gotten away scot-free has no bearing on the decision to discipline the commander. If someone gets fined for running a red light, they cannot dispute the fine by complaining that others have gotten away with it before. You cannot use this kind of argument for equal treatment or fairness in this way in the law. Chang certainly never asked for this, and yet certain quarters have kicked up a fuss about it. It is for the authorities responsible to decide whether to investigate or discipline him.
The issue of sovereignty is a sensitive one, especially when it comes to territorial disputes, and it is difficult for people not to feel a sense of righteous indignation at what is going on. Nevertheless, from the perspective of international law and foreign relations, the issue of discipline really has nothing to do with sovereignty disputes. In the absence of any other incriminating facts, there is no need for members of the public to allow their imaginations to run away with them, or for them to confuse the issue of military discipline with questions of sovereignty.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper