Taiwan will treat China flights into airspace as 'first strike'

The Taiwan Strait is some 180km wide and at its narrowest, the median line is about 40km from Taiwan's waters. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI - Taiwan warned that it would treat any Chinese incursion into the island’s airspace as a “first strike", as Taipei seeks to deter Beijing from ratcheting up military pressure around the island. 

Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told lawmakers in Taipei that the ministry was taking such incursions more seriously after a recent spate of closer flights by Chinese warplanes and drones.

Pressed on whether any warplane’s violation of Taiwan’s airspace would be viewed as a first strike, Mr Chiu said, “yes”, without elaborating what the response would be.

“In the past, we said we won’t be the first to strike, which meant we won’t do it without them firing artillery shells or missiles, et cetera, first,” Mr Chiu said on Wednesday.

“But now the definition has obviously changed, as China used means like drones. So we have adjusted, and will view any crossing of aircraft or vessels as a first strike.”

Taiwan is trying to reassert a buffer zone that China has eroded, particularly since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August.

Since then, an average of 10 Chinese military aircraft per day have flown across the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait or into the southwestern corner of the island’s larger air-defence identification zone, according to Bloomberg-compiled data.

So far, Chinese military aircraft and warships have kept well outside the smaller 12-nautical-mile (22km) area that Taiwan regards as defining its territorial sea and airspace.

Taiwan would react militarily if Chinese forces crossed the 12-nautical-mile line, Reuters reported in August, citing an unnamed Taiwanese official.

Mr Chiu appeared to go further in response to a lawmaker’s question on Wednesday about recent drone flights over Taiwanese-controlled islands located off the Chinese coast.

On Sept 1, Taiwan shot down a civilian drone near Kinmen Island, after other attempts to repel it failed. 

“First strike or not, as long as any China’s aircraft or vessel crosses the line, we will destroy it,” Mr Chiu said. “We have made the adjustment now.”

Taiwan is set to be a core issue at the twice-a-decade congress of China’s ruling Communist Party, scheduled to begin on Oct 16.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure a third term in power, and could face greater pressure to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s rule, as part of a longer-term goal of national rejuvenation.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. China says its armed forces have a right to operate around Taiwan as it is Chinese territory.

Taiwan rejects China's sovereignty claims, saying as the People's Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan, only the island's 23 million people have the right to decide their future.

Mr Chiu on Wednesday said China’s activities had shattered the concept of the median line, which the United States drafted decades ago to prevent a conflict between the two sides.

"The median line was supposed to be a tacit agreement for everyone," Mr Chiu told a Parliamentary committee meeting. "That tacit agreement has been destroyed."

China never officially recognised the line that a US general devised in 1954 at the height of Cold War hostility between Communist China and US-backed Taiwan although the People's Liberation Army had largely respected it.

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The Taiwan Strait is some 180km wide and at its narrowest, the median line is about 40km from Taiwan's waters.

Taiwanese military planned to continue to patrol and train east of the line, Mr Chiu said. Still, Taiwan wants to minimise the risk of an accident that results in miscalculation, he added. 

“We will try our best to avoid a minor incident that could escalate the situation,” Mr Chiu said. “But if China continues with repeated actions, we will show our will.”

Some Taiwan officials and security analysts have said it would be difficult for the island to defend the median line without raising the risk of dangerous escalation. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

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