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Technically, China Did Not Invade Taiwan’s Airspace

Technically, China Did Not Invade Taiwan’s Airspace
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Robert Menendez

Robert Menendez

Chairman, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee

“Incursions on Taiwan airspace are only the latest example of China's increasingly aggressive behavior.”


On Monday, October 4, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported that 56 Chinese jets had flown into the southwest portion of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

That doubled the previous single-day record, which occurred on June 15, when China dispatched 28 warplanes in the vicinity of Taiwan. That record itself was then repeatedly broken over several days – and the message underscored with threatening rhetoric.

“China will take all measures necessary to crush any ‘Taiwan independence’,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Twitter.

The continued flights followed a Group of Seven industrialized nations call for “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” between China and Taiwan, which the communist mainland views as a breakaway province.

The tensions sparked a flurry of comments from U.S. politicians and media, with many claiming China had violated Taiwan’s airspace. Among them was Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A Taiwan-built fighter jet releases flares during a drill simulating a Chinese invasion in Pingtung county on August 25, 2016. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
A Taiwan-built fighter jet releases flares during a drill simulating a Chinese invasion in Pingtung county on August 25, 2016. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

“Incursions on Taiwan airspace are only the latest example of China's increasingly aggressive behavior,” Menendez tweeted.

“With global stability & security at stake, it's more crucial than ever that the US defend democratic values & free-market principles championed by Taiwan's people & government.”

Beijing’s intentions aside, however, it’s technically false to say China made incursions into Taiwan’s airspace.

That’s because Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ) is not synonymous with its national airspace. In fact, they are quite different in both legal and geographical dimensions.

According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which spells out the rules for international air travel, “every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.”

The convention notes that the territory of a state includes its territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the baseline (the low-water line along the coast) of a state. Sovereignty also extends to a country’s internal waters, which face landward from the baseline.

An ADIZ is distinct from national airspace.

The U.S.-based think tank defines an ADIZ as a “unilaterally established set of procedures followed by one country's air defense forces” that are not underpinned by an international treaty or law.

For example, states may demand that aircraft entering their ADIZ identify flight plans and nationality, keep their transponders on, and respond to radio identification requests.

However, other states aren’t required to comply with these demands if they “are prepared to have their aircraft intercepted,” wrote.

Approximately 20 states have established ADIZs, including China, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

A little-understood fact about Taiwan’s ADIZ is that it overlaps geographically with China, both its territorial waters and actual land.

Moreover, China’s own ADIZ, declared in 2013, covers territories claimed by South Korea and Japan. For example, China’s ADIZ covers the Senkaku Islands, disputed by China and Japan.

Due to the unilateral nature of ADIZs, portions of the buffer zones set up by China, Japan and South Korea overlap, specifically in the East China Sea.

It was against this backdrop that China tested boundaries.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece the Global Times said on October 4 that the People’s Liberation Army had “for the third time in just four days … broke its record in the number of aircraft dispatched for drills near the island of Taiwan in a single day.”

Citing Taiwan defense authorities, the Global Times reported that “[a]t least 149 PLA warplanes have joined exercises near the island of Taiwan since the start of the National Day” on October 1, the day that commemorates establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Those military aircraft included 34 J-16 fighter jets, two Russian-manufactured Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets, two Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, two KJ-500 early warning aircraft and 12 H-6 nuclear-capable bombers.

But while the Chinese aircraft flew between Taiwan and Taiwan-controlled Pratas Island, they never came within 100 miles of Taiwan.

Many media outlets, including Fox News, NBC News, Sky News Australia, Stars and Stripes and Deutsche Presse-Agentur tweeted that the Chinese planes had entered Taiwanese airspace.

Besides Menendez, other U.S. politicians, including Republican House member William Gregory Steube and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also a Republican, repeated the incorrect claim.

In response to China’s actions, Taiwan’s foreign minister said his country is ready for war, appealing to Western partners, specifically Australia, for aid.

Tensions in the region have ratcheted up as China has increasingly attempted to assert its claims within the so-called “nine-dash line,” an arbitrarily imposed boundary that Beijing claims gives it control over most of the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all have competing territorial claims in the region.

The United States in recent years has used freedom of navigation operations to uphold “the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law.”

Taiwan has been a particular flashpoint, with Beijing insisting that Taiwan is indisputably a part of China under the so-called "One China Policy."

Historically, the United States has "acknowledged," but not "recognized," that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does recognize the People's Republic of China as the sole government of China.

No formal military alliance exists between the United States and Taiwan. However, under the Taiwan Relations Act, "the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."

The ramped-up Chinese flights coincided with joint naval exercises involving the United States, Japan, United Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Canada in the Philippine Sea near the Japanese Island of Okinawa, some 455 miles from Taiwan.

Three aircraft carriers – two American and one British – were in the armada of 17 warships from six countries that trained together in the Philippine Sea.

In September, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced the so-called AUKUS security pact, which entails the delivery of a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia.

That pact has raised the ire of China.