China is using military drills, conducted without warning and using live ammunition, as a pretext for further encroachment on Taiwanese territory, National Defense University researcher Ma Chen-kun (馬振坤) said on Tuesday. The use of live ammunition meant the drills risked developing into combat, and likely represented a scenario in which Beijing could authorize the use of military force to deter “Taiwanese independence activities,” he said.
China used the drills to “further approach the 12 nautical mile [22.2km] baseline of Taiwan’s territorial waters,” and could have been “a pretext to break into Taiwan’s 24 nautical mile contiguous zone,” he said.
However, China did not enter Taiwan’s territorial waters, nor did it enter Taiwan’s contiguous zone, which means that the drills were held in international waters. China might also say that its crossing of the Strait’s median line — defined in 1955 by US Air Force general Benjamin Davis — was not an escalation, as it is a marker Beijing has never recognized. Other countries hold drills in international waters, so from China’s perspective, its actions were not provocative.
That is not to suggest the Chinese naval drills are not harmful to Taiwan’s interests. They might not directly affect Taiwanese sovereignty, but they represent Beijing’s “gray zone” tactics, which seek to gradually push the boundaries of what it can get away with before other countries take action.
As such, China is likely to conduct combat readiness patrols more frequently and without warning, to further pressure Taiwan’s defense lines at sea and in the air, Ma said. This could force Taiwan to waste resources, wear down troops and equipment, and decrease military and public morale whenever accidents might occur.
The US and other countries are keen to assert that the Taiwan Strait comprises international waters, as they should be. Even if Taiwan were under the administration of the People’s Republic of China, the majority of the strait would remain outside of its 12 nautical-mile zone.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that “every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this convention.”
However, China, despite being a UN member, has said on other occasions that it does not recognize the Taiwan Strait or much of the South China Sea as being international waters. By exerting claims — often through dangerous, confrontational behavior — that run contrary to international norms, China is putting at risk the commercial interests of the nations that rely on uninhibited passage through the Indo-Pacific region.
Taiwan should encourage the US and other countries to hold joint drills in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Several countries already regularly pass through these areas to assert freedom of navigation, and there is no reason they could not also hold drills with Taiwan in the region.
Protesting every time China holds drills in international waters is not productive, and doing so does not deter China. Instead, Taiwan and other countries should take action to show Beijing that it is not the only country that can hold drills at whim, ask others to halt air and sea traffic, and flex its military muscle to demonstrate a resolve to push back if pushed.
If Taiwan, the US and other countries start flying, sailing and launching missiles near China’s shores, perhaps Beijing might get the message to back off.
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