Chinese military officials have reportedly asserted to their U.S. counterparts that the Taiwan Strait is part of its maritime exclusive economic zone rather than an open international waterway and demanded the U.S. stay out.
Chinese military officials have repeatedly told U.S. that it is mistaken in its view of the international maritime law governing the waterway that divides Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg on Sunday. These Chinese communications have come to the U.S. on multiple occasions and at multiple levels.
China has long held the view that the Taiwan Strait is part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Meanwhile, the U.S. considers much of the waterway open to international traffic and the U.S. Navy frequently sails Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) through the Taiwan Strait.
China frequently protests the U.S. transits through the Taiwan Strait, but the issue previously wasn’t a regular talking point in direct communications between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, according to Bloomberg’s source.
It is unclear whether the recent assertions that the Taiwan Strait is part of China’s EEZ mean China will take any additional steps to assert control over the waterway. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states an EEZ grants the particular sovereign state the exclusive rights to the “economic exploitation and exploration of the zone” but other nations are still permitted rights to “navigation and overflight and of the laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and other internationally lawful uses of the sea.” The UNCLOS rules on EEZs do not prohibit passage by military vessels and aircraft.
Per UNCLOS, the rights to an EEZ extend no more than 200 nautical miles (about 230 standard miles) from a state’s sea baseline. Taiwan is about 100 miles from the nearest shores of the Chinese mainland.
While EEZs are not meant to serve as a security zone, a February 2021 analysis by the Australia-based Lowy Institute found that China has claimed its EEZ grants it the right to regulate military activity in the covered area. Despite what UNCLOS states, Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Oman and Vietnam all agree with China that other nations’ warships have no presumed right to pass through their EEZs.
China has frequently characterized U.S. Navy FONOPs through the Taiwan Strait as an effort to signal support for Taiwan’s independence.
During the Shangri-La Dialogue international security summit in Singapore last week, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told both U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directly, and the summit publicly, that China will not hesitate to fight a war if Taiwan tries to assert its independence from the Chinese mainland.
During his own remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday, Austin said, “We see growing coercion from Beijing. We’ve witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan. And that includes [Chinese People’s Liberation Army] aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months—and nearly on a daily basis.”
“We remain focused on maintaining peace, stability, and the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” Austin added. “But the [People’s Republic of China’s] moves threaten to undermine security, and stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. And that’s crucial for this region, and it’s crucial for the wider world.”