Following China’s highly controversial unilateral demarcation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering airspace over the East China Sea, and just as countries affected by the move were voicing their protests loud and clear, Taiwan’s Minister of Transportation and Communications Yeh Kuang-shih (葉匡時) struck an entirely different note by saying that Taiwan would submit flight plans to China in line with international practice laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
The minister is confused, to say the least. All the statements made by various nations about China’s air defense identification zone have without exception been made by their ministers of defense or foreign affairs, which shows that this is by no means purely a civil aviation issue.
The kinds of zone that the ICAO regulates are flight information regions (FIR), whose purpose is to provide flight information services that help ensure air traffic safety. It is extraordinary that Yeh, as Taiwan’s top official in charge of civil aviation, does not know the difference between an air defense identification zone and a flight information region.
To make matters worse, members of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) national security team said that they would handle the issue of China’s air defense identification zone entirely in accordance with international regulations and accepted practice. However, these zones have no basis in international law and there is no international mechanism for overseeing them. It follows that there are no prevailing international regulations governing air defense identification zones, let alone accepted practice.
Air defense identification zones originate from the time when East and West were at loggerheads, and especially following the Soviet Union’s deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was under such circumstances that the US demarked air defense identification zones around North America.
However, these zones were only concerned with aircraft heading toward the US. In practice they did not apply to aircraft that crossed an air defense identification zone but flew parallel to, rather than toward, US territory. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the purpose of these air defense zones has changed and they are now mostly to do with preventing terrorism and stopping drug smugglers.
China claims that it has set up its air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in exercise of its right to self defense. In reality, however, the move is a follow-up to its submission of a map of its claimed coastal baselines to the UN last year, and is similarly intended to strengthen its claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). It is also meant to establish a basis for challenging Japan’s aerial patrols in the airspace over the Diaoyutai Islands.
China’s move effectively extends the dispute about sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands from the Earth’s surface up into the sky above. Considering that Taiwan is one of the claimants in the Diaoyutai Islands dispute, how can we indirectly support China’s standpoint?
China’s declaration of the air defense identification zone highlights its gangster mentality, as it tries to use institutional means to change the “status quo” in the East China Sea region. Taiwan should learn a lesson from the affair and handle it with the utmost caution.
As to those in charge of the issue in Taiwan, they have clearly been incapable of grasping the core issues involved in this dispute. In view of that failure, how can they be expected to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and dignity?
Chen Rong-jye is a law professor and a former secretary-general of the Straits Exchange Foundation.
Translated by Julian Clegg