In 1955, US general Benjamin Davis Jr, then-commander of the US’ 13th Air Force, drew a maritime demarcation line in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, known as the median line. Under pressure from the US, Taiwan and China entered into a tacit agreement not to cross the line.
On July 9, 1999, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) described cross-strait relations as a “special state-to-state” relationship.
In response, Beijing dispatched People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft into the Taiwan Strait, crossing the median line for the first time since 1955.
The PLA has begun to regularly traverse the line. On Sept. 18 and 19, it dispatched multiple waves of aircraft from different directions and flying at different altitudes. The aircraft crossed the median line in a harassing attack. It was a signal that China no longer recognizes the median line.
The Ministry of National Defense earlier this month specified the definition of a “first strike” in its rules of engagement as “the right to self-defense.” This means that Taiwanese fighter pilots must wait for their PLA adversaries to fire the first shot, then request permission to return fire, which must be granted at the ministerial level.
Under the new rules of engagement, even if PLA aircraft enter the nation’s airspace, Taiwanese pilots have been deprived of the right to exercise their independent judgement and carry out a legitimate, pre-emptive strike in self-defense.
Once PLA pilots become aware that Taiwanese pilots are no longer allowed to independently return fire, they might gain a taste for harassing them and further push the boundaries: Give a knave an inch and he will take a mile.
The PLA might adopt this salami-slicing strategy to erode the airspace for Taiwanese pilots to conduct contingency training.
Under the combat readiness regulations, a first strike outside the nation’s airspace requires authorization at the ministerial level. However, inside Taiwan’s 12 nautical mile (22.2km) territorial airspace, the combat commander can authorize a first strike at their discretion.
A few seconds is a lifetime in modern combat. Under the updated regulations, the air battle for the Taiwan Strait would be over before the authorization is received — and many Taiwanese pilots’ lives would be needlessly sacrificed. This change to the rules of engagement might have a serious impact on the morale of Taiwan’s frontline fighter pilots.
Worse still, pre-emptive self-defense is entirely legitimate under customary international law. Following the Caroline affair of 1837, the “Caroline test” established the concept of “anticipatory self-defense.” It states that the use of pre-emptive force is justified if four tests are satisfied: First, the threat must be imminent; second, no other options are available; third, there is an instant and overwhelming necessity to act, and; fourth, the response must be proportionate to the threat.
The National Security Council’s adoption of a “no first strike” rule is a strategic political decision, not a military one. Since Taiwan is faced with the threat of an attack from a substantially more powerful enemy, this is understandable. As the military is at its core a political instrument, political objectives must sometimes override military considerations.
However, with PLA airplanes and ships conducting near-constant encirclement drills around Taiwan, a responsible government would not restrict its military from the self-defense option of conducting a legitimate pre-emptive strike. After all, the use of force to resist invasion and maintain peace is the purist definition of a “just war.”
Lin Tai-ho is a professor at National Chung Cheng University’s Institute of Strategic and International Affairs.
Translated by Edward Jones
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