Dispute Among U.S., China, and Taiwan:Is the Taiwan Strait International Waters?

Summary Report by Taiwan Weekly


According to a Bloomberg News report on June 13, when they met with their American counterparts in recent months, Chinese officials repeatedly claimed that Taiwan Strait is not international waters, raising concerns in the administration of President Joe Biden. In a June 13 press conference, Spokesman Wang Wenbin of the mainland China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that China has sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in the Taiwan Strait and at the same time respects the lawful rights of other countries in relevant waters. Wang also said that China is firmly against the claim of certain countries that Taiwan Strait is international waters. 


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) rebuffed China’s claim and said that the Taiwan Strait is international waters, while the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stated that Beijing intended to turn the Taiwan Strait into its internal sea with the attempt to upset the international maritime order and escalate regional tensions. 


During the press conference on June 14, Spokeswoman Joanne Ou of MOFA stated that the Taiwan Strait is international waters and that freedom of the sea as defined in international law applies to waters beyond Taiwan’s territorial sea limits. Taiwan has always accorded due respects to foreign vessels engaged in activities, including innocent passage, in the Taiwan Strait in compliance with international law. Taiwan also understands the benefits of and supports the freedom of navigation operations conducted by the United States that serve to promote peace and stability in the region. MOFA condemns and rejects Chinese government’s disregard of Taiwan’s position and its deliberate distortion of international law to downgrade the Taiwan Strait to the status of China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China’s actions clearly highlight its ambition to annex Taiwan. 


The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) emphasized that Taiwan Strait is international waters and not the waters of China’s military and maritime expansions. Taiwan and the international society do not recognize nor accept China’s intent to turn Taiwan to part of China, and the Taiwan Strait to part of China’s internal sea.


According to Bloomberg News, recently Chinese officials of different levels said to U.S. officials in several occasions that Taiwan Strait is not international waters and belongs to China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). What Chinese officials meant was that the U.S. military vessels should not enter the Taiwan Strait without China’s approval. This recent development has caused concerns in the Biden administration because China’s claim was rare in past U.S.-China exchanges and challenged the positions of the United States and its allies on international law. The United States and its major allies have always claimed that the majority portion of Taiwan Strait is international waters. 


At a press conference, Spokesman Wang responded that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. The Taiwan Strait ranged in width from about 70 nautical miles at its narrowest and 220 nautical miles at its widest. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores towards the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones, including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone. There is no legal basis of “international waters” in the international law of the sea. It is a false claim when certain countries call the Taiwan Strait international waters in order to find a pretext for manipulating issues related to Taiwan and threatening China’s sovereignty and security. China is firmly against it. 


As to China’s sovereignty claim over the Taiwan Strait, Spokesman Ned Price of the U.S. Department of State answered in an e-mail to Reuters on June 14 that the Taiwan Strait is an international waterway, meaning that the Taiwan Strait is an area where high seas freedoms, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, are guaranteed under international law. Perhaps because Wang stated that there is no “international waters” under international law of the sea, Mr. Price changed the wording to “international waterway.” 


Mr. Price added that the world has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and the United States considers this central to the security and prosperity of the broader Indo-Pacific region. American concerns about China’s aggressive rhetoric and coercive activity regarding Taiwan, and the United States would continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and that includes transiting through the Taiwan Strait. 


Regarding the mainland Chinese position that Taiwan Strait is not international waters, some Chinese scholars think that China may exercise reasonable jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait, especially over the threatening and challenging foreign military vessels. Beijing may implement the system of prior notification when they enter the Taiwan Strait. 


On June 18, Hong Kong media “Hong Kong 01” published an interview with Assistant Director Bao Chengke of the Shanghai Institute of East Asian Studies. Bao thinks that Beijing believes that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of China. The mainland’s claim that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters should be the official position after serious studies and debates. 


Before the opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue on Asian security in Singapore, USS Port Royal, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser belonging to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, transited through the Taiwan Strait on June 10. United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe met for the first time on June 10 and went head-to-head on Taiwan issues. Wei stated that if anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost. Austin stated that the United States will stand with its allies, including Taiwan, and that is especially important as China adopts a more coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims. 


According to the U.S. government website, the term “international waters” often refers informally to waters outside of a country’s territorial waters. As defined by the 1982 UNCLOS, territorial sea is a belt of coastal waters extending to 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state, where the coastal state enjoys full sovereignty. An exclusive economic zone extends from baseline to a maximum of 200 nautical miles of a coastal state. The coastal state enjoys natural resources and economic rights but other countries enjoy the freedoms of navigation and overflight in EEZ.




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