US President Joe Biden’s administration has decided to reject a vague new assertion by China that the Taiwan Strait is not “international waters” and is increasingly concerned the stance could result in more frequent challenges at sea for Taiwan, people familiar with the matter said.
Chinese officials have made such remarks repeatedly in meetings with US counterparts over the past few months.
In the past, while China regularly protested US military moves in the Taiwan Strait, the legal status of the waters was not a regular talking point in meetings with US officials.
The timing of the assertion is causing alarm within the Biden administration, given that the global security environment is fraught in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In February, China and Russia suggested in a joint statement that they might support each other’s territorial claims in a way that one official said resembled a bid to carve out spheres of influence.
Biden has been briefed on the matter and his national security team is examining the Chinese claim to understand exactly what it entails, the people said.
The team is looking at the language China has used to describe the Strait in previous decades and is working with US allies to assess their interpretations of the language.
US officials are increasingly concerned that the claim might be a deliberate effort to muddy the legal interpretation of the sea around Taiwan in ways that could suggest that China regards it as an internal waterway, officials said.
Washington has conveyed its position to Beijing.
It is unclear what China means by “international waters,” but the language might be intended to deter the US from sailing through the Strait, a practice that Beijing has criticized as harming stability and sending the wrong signal to “Taiwan independence forces.”
It remains unclear whether China would take practical steps to enforce its position, the people said.
Some previous Chinese claims, such as its proclamation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in 2013, have been only sporadically enforced. While the Chinese military has made regular incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ over the past few years, China’s maritime challenges have been more limited.
The White House and the Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
The US is unlikely to be stopped by the more assertive language from China, whose claims over Taiwan have taken on a new focus since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Some US officials believe that China is gauging the response in Washington to the Ukraine crisis as a proxy for how the US would deal with more aggressive action by Beijing against Taiwan.
US warships transit the Taiwan Strait several times a year while as they sail from the East China Sea to the South China Sea, averaging about one trip a month since 2020.
This year, the US Navy has conducted at least five transits, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and would probably continue to do so to see if Beijing would back its words with actions.
“The Taiwan Strait is an international waterway” where freedom of navigation and overflight “are guaranteed under international law,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said in an e-mail. “The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and that includes transiting through the Taiwan Strait.”
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified, but the US has not, nations are entitled to territorial waters stretching 12 nautical miles (22km) from their coast.
They may also claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) stretching another 200 nautical miles — beyond that are the high seas.
At its widest, the Taiwan Strait spans about 220 nautical miles.
Even if China were to use the same legal terms as other countries, it does not interpret the associated rights in the same way as the US and its allies. China seeks to restrict what militaries can do in the area claimed as its EEZ, while the US and its allies have a much freer interpretation.
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