Why not international waters?

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Why not international waters?

The author is the head of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Is the Taiwan Strait not international waters? China has consistently claimed that the strait is not international waters. On June 12, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that there was no such thing as international waters in the International Law of the Sea. Wang argued, “A related country referring to the Taiwan Strait as international waters aims to threaten China’s sovereignty and safety by intervening in the Taiwan issue.”

Who is this related nation? Is it the United States? At the Korea-U.S. defense ministerial meeting and the Korea-U.S.-Japan defense ministerial meetings at the Asian Security Conference in Singapore on June 11, statements emphasizing the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” were issued. They are interpreted as affirmation of the intervention of Korea, the U.S. and Japan in the dispute. Korea is not free from the issue. We need to pay attention to why China is suddenly claiming that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters.

China argues that the term “international waters” is not a legal term under the international law. We need to pay heed to why China is addressing the legal status of the strait at this time. It has not been a part of the main agenda between the United States and China.

There are three interpretations. First, China is building up legal grounds with a possibility of a war in the Taiwan Strait in mind. Second, it is preparing countermeasures by studying responses of each country. The third is for domestic propaganda in China. By showing a hardline stance on the Taiwan issue to the United States and the Western world, China wants to save face.

In my view, however, what China is aiming for first is to “prevent the Taiwan issue from becoming an international dispute.” China likes to say that the Taiwan issue is a historical problem left by the Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. Therefore, it wants to leave foreign forces out of it. But if the strait is commonly referred to as “international waters,” it could be considered an international issue in case a problem occurs there. If it becomes an international issue, it is only natural for the international community to intervene. China’s intention to prevent foreign intervention was manifested as in its flat denial of the term “international waters.”

The problem is that as soon as China reveals its intention, the Taiwan issue becomes more international. Many countries, including Korean and Japan, cannot help worrying that if the strait is not international waters but under Chinese jurisdiction, most maritime lifelines, such as petroleum, would be in the hands of China.
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