Beijing’s demarcation of a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea has been met with a strong response from the US, Japan and South Korea. All three countries flew military aircraft into the zone as a clear challenge to China’s demand that it be notified before any aircraft crosses the zone.
The Taiwanese government came out with a mild response, saying that Beijing had made the announcement without discussing it with Taipei first, and that this was not very helpful for the positive development of cross-strait relations. Apparently, it would have readily accepted the situation had Beijing only discussed its plans before making the announcement.
What is more, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that in the interests of safety, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) has to comply with Beijing’s demand that it submit details of any flight plans through the zone.
Ma said that civil aviation authorities were prepared, according to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules, to submit, on behalf of any domestic or foreign airlines flying from Taiwan whose civilian passenger flights were to pass through identification zones in the East China Sea, any information pertaining to those flights to the civil aviation authority of the country that lays claim to that air defense zone.
This is quite confusing. The issue involves the freedom of flight in skies over the open seas and sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), but instead of vigorously protesting the demarcation, the government ordered the CAA to comply with Beijing’s stipulations.
Such a development is sure to raise questions among the nation’s diplomatic allies, and it is certainly not going to be helpful to the country’s sovereignty claims over the Diaoyutais.
Fighter jets are a symbol of a nation’s sovereignty. Taiwan is absolutely under no obligation to respect the executive orders, unilaterally made, of any other country concerning flights over the open seas — unless it is willing to do so.
China’s new East China Sea air defense identification zone partially overlaps the Taiwanese air force’s R8 combat air patrol zone. It is not necessary for Taiwan to be familiar with Beijing’s stipulations, because if it did respect its demands, it would no longer be possible for the nation to conduct military exercises in this airspace, which would be tantamount to relinquishing its right to this area.
The government has said that the air force would not be influenced or impacted in any way, and military drills and exercises would go ahead as normal in the nation’s air defense zone — which is how it should be.
A distinction needs to be made here regarding the civil aviation routes being taken by carriers. For flights going to China that have to pass through Beijing’s East China Sea air zone, Taiwanese authorities are obliged, in line with international convention and ICAO regulations, to submit flight information plans to China.
However, for flights traversing the zone but not be going into China’s airspace, there is no obligation under international law to submit plans to China. This is especially true with the East China Sea air defense identification zone, which covers the area in which the Diaoyutais are located.
Taiwan-registered aircraft should not submit their flight plans when going over this area, because to do so would be to recognize the validity of Beijing’s new East China Sea zone, which would essentially be an admission that the island chain belongs to the People’s Republic of China and not to the Republic of China.
Nevertheless, in the interest of passenger flight safety and because circumstances dictate, the government cannot allow aircraft or passengers to be exposed to any danger whatsoever because of political disputes. It has therefore followed the US model and has not actually prohibited civil aviation carriers from complying with China’s stipulations.
However, this does not mean that the government should come out and order its agencies to comply. What it should do is lodge an official protest against Beijing’s unilateral announcement of the zone.
Since circumstances have changed, Taiwan should consider whether it should revise its own air defense zone. As this situation arose partially because of the territorial disputes surrounding sovereignty over the Diaoyutais, both Japan and China have included the islands within their respective air defense zones. Taiwan is the only claimant of the islands — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — that has not included them within its own zone.
If the government continues to be passive on the issue, there is the risk of undermining its sovereignty claim. This has been exacerbated by South Korea’s recent announcement of its intention to expand its own air defense identification zone, scheduled to take effect on Sunday.
Japan had already, in June 2010, announced that it would extend its western zone by 14 nautical miles (26km) to incorporate Yonaguni Island, which it also claims sovereignty over. This amendment actually diverted somewhat from the straight line of 123o east that demarcates the border between the Japanese and Taiwanese air defense zones, protruding slightly into Taiwan’s space so that the two overlap.
China announced last month that it was extending its air defense identification zone to cover the Diaoyutais, which makes it perfectly valid for Taiwan to follow suit and consider amending its zone to include the Diaoyutais.
Finally, there has been a lot of clamor over whether China is thinking about establishing a similar zone in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
While a South China Sea air defense identification zone would present serious challenges, Taiwan has to be more prepared for what it should do if Beijing announces an air defense identification zone in the Taiwan Strait. China did plan to establish such a zone, together with one over the East China Sea, in December 2007, but backed down in the face of international protest at a time when it was soon to hold the Beijing Olympics.
Now that Beijing has suddenly announced an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, we cannot rule out the possibility that Beijing will resurrect its plans for one over the Taiwan Strait.
The nation needs to be prepared for that eventuality.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper