By Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado

 

In the past two years we have seen countless alarming headlines about the repeated sorties by Chinese military aircraft that worry Taiwan. However, only a small number of such articles have stopped to explain that those flights took place over the Taiwanese “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ), while it is almost impossible to find publications that have make the effort to explain what this involves. Mistakenly, journalists sometimes directly mention incursions into “Taiwanese airspace” or flights “over Taiwan”, leading the reader to confusion. This, more than an innocent mistake due to a lack of knowledge, is the result of the hegemonic language that rejoices in the description of an evil China, a United States as protector of the “free world”, and a repressed and threatened democratic Taiwan. This Manichean and simplistic description of a highly complex conflict requires much qualification to avoid a New Cold War defined by antagonistic discourses anchored in visions lacking perspective.

 

As public discourse and democratic debate is based on the political imaginary constructed by such narratives, it is necessary to initiate a deep discursive analysis on the construction of the Chinese enemy by the hegemonic language. The ultimate hope is to help broaden the much-needed perspective when analyzing conflicts such as that of Taiwan, around which this discursive struggle is highly pronounced. To be more specific, this article will focus on the discursive strategy of a British mass media that has long blown in favour of the language of American hegemony: The Guardian.

 

Among the dozens of The Guardian news items that mention the “ADIZ”, on a good number of occasions “Taiwan air defence zone”[1] is mentioned exclusively, eliminating the word “identification” and making it sound more severe as it becomes a purely “defensive” zone. On a couple of occasions there is even talk of “Taiwan scrambles jet fighters after Chinese aircraft enter airspace”,[2] or of “incursions into Taiwanese airspace”.[3] The latter in particular is a notorious case, as the article is a lengthy opinion piece co-authored by The Guardian‘s Taipei correspondent, Helen Davidson. As much as we dislike the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), we must not ignore the facts and we must point out that these claims are directly false. But to understand that the Chinese military aircraft entered the ADIZ and not the Taiwanese airspace, it is first necessary to explain what each thing is, since the reader is not usually familiar with these terms.

 

Based on international legislation, the notion of sovereign airspace corresponds to the maritime definition of territorial waters, which would be 22.2 km outside the coastline. The ADIZ is something very different. To begin with, “ADIZ has not any legal foundation that is explicitly stipulated in International law”.[4] In fact, only about twenty countries in the world have established an ADIZ. In fact, China had not established one until 2013, when news broke of its establishment covering a large area of ​​the East China Sea and coming into conflict with the ADIZ of neighbouring countries. How is this possible? Plain and simple because each country establishes its ADIZ based on its own criteria, without any type of limit or written guide in international law. And so we have that the ADIZ of Taiwan not only occupies a very wide strip of international maritime space to the south of the island, but it also reaches well inside the territory on mainland China. In other words, the Taiwanese ADIZ overlaps Chinese airspace. Thus, incursions in the Taiwanese ADIZ occur strictly on a daily basis as, paradoxically, there are Chinese military airports within the Taiwanese ADIZ.

 

Of course, to avoid this absurdity, the Taiwanese military acts only when Chinese military planes cross the purported “middle line” of the strait that separates the island from the mainland. However, this line also lacks international validity (it was created ad hoc by the United States during the Cold War to protect the proto-fascist regime of the Republic of China, refugee on the island), and it is not a line separating two countries at war (like the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas) inasmuch as the Republic of China (Taiwan) is not considered internationally as a different country from the People’s Republic of China. In other words, China does not commit any affront against international law by crossing the “middle line”, or for flying its aircrafts through the Taiwanese ADIZ, which is somewhat different from Taiwan’s national airspace.

 

But the hype with the “threatening incursions” of Chinese aircraft goes further. The overwhelming majority of “incursions” on the Taiwanese ADIZ occur over international waters south of the island, more than 100 kilometres off the coast of Taiwan, so that the Chinese aircraft have neither entered Taiwanese air space nor flown in its direction.[5] Sometimes the coast of Taiwan is closer to the Chinese coast than to where these “aggressive incursions” in the ADIZ have been reported. If one day China established its own ADIZ in this portion of the South China Sea, it would surely superimpose itself on parts of the Taiwanese ADIZ, since some of them are closer to China’s coast than to that of Taiwan.

Example of Chinese incursions over the Taiwanese ADIZ

To make sense, an ADIZ usually has to fulfil three conditions: it only cover undisputed territory (which is not the case here), does not apply to foreign aircraft not intending to enter territorial airspace (which is the case of Chinese military aircraft flying over international waters and with a direction other than Taiwan), and do not overlap (This is the case with Taiwan’s ADIZ, which overlaps Chinese airspace and would overlap any potential Chinese ADIZ created in the area). When China established its ADIZ in conflict with that of other countries, legal experts attacked the Asian country saying that “The specific identification requirements declared by China go beyond typical ADIZs in that they apply to aircraft flying through the zone but not entering Chinese airspace”.[6] In addition, they indicated an especially significant legal concern: “that if China enforces its ADIZ in ways that prevents other states from freely transiting that airspace, it would violate freedom of overflight rights on the high seas”.[7] Well, this is precisely what Taiwan is doing now, pursuing Chinese planes for entering an airspace over waters where there should be freedom of overflight, and accusing them of “threatening” incursions when these planes only fly through this area but do not enter or head towards the Taiwanese airspace. However, what in one case was understood as a sign of Chinese militaristic totalitarianism, in the case of Taiwan it is viewed favourably whereas China is the aggressor.

 

The problem with the Taiwanese ADIZ is that it is designed in such a way that it damages China’s freedom to fly through international waters as do, for example, the military planes of the Taiwanese allies (for instance, the United States). China is thus cornered by this ADIZ while planes from other nations are free to cross it. The use of the ADIZ “should value sovereignty of the other countries in order to maintain International peace and security”, [8] and this does not happen in the case of Taiwan and its oversized and over-enforced ADIZ. The question that arises then is why Taiwan and its allies react with such fuss. The answer is that it is not merely because of military considerations but because of the discursive struggle framed in this New Cold War between China and the United States (plus allies).

 

On the one hand, the United States, Taiwan, and in general the entire anti-China coalition that fears the growth of the Asian country, take advantage of these events to insist on the rhetoric of the perfect enemy. China is discursively constructed as the vile communist monster that destroys everything it touches, which plans to subdue its neighbours and rivals for its own benefit, which attacks and threatens without reasonable argument, only for the enjoyment of its evil nature. Of course this is done in a way that becomes naturalised through gradual repetition and through beautiful words, not with the irony of the previous sentence. These Chinese incursions are often described as “gray zone tactics” to wear down and intimidate the inferior Taiwanese air forces (a form of “war of attrition”), so that in March 2021 the government of Taiwan decided to suspend the interdiction of each one of these raids and simply monitor them by means of radars and anti-aircraft missiles. If they are so threatening and dangerous, how can they afford such a measure? Wouldn’t it have been more sensible to act like this from the very beginning and avoid scaremongering, militaristic escalation and social polarization? No, because this is precisely what they are looking for. This element of exaggeration or misrepresentation of reality applies to practically every factor of geopolitical contention of which China is a part. As the Taiwan’s premier gladly put it: “It’s evident that the world, the international community, rejects such behaviours by China more and more”.[9] The ADIZ myth as a discursive tool to articulate the anti-China camp, perfectly portrays the evil-China narrative according to which everything China does is wicked while everything the US and its allies (including Taiwan) carry out is a legitimate defence of freedom, sovereignty, and liberal democracy. This discursive strategy is highly paradoxical when articulated by the United States, the country that unilaterally invades sovereign countries after fabricating evidence. It is also the country that defended Taiwan when it was a proto-fascist dictatorship, before becoming the beautiful democracy that it is today.

 

And on the other hand, why does China insist on these flights if all it achieves is that people speak ill of it? To begin with, because they have the right to fly there. The alarmism caused by these actions is precisely what the CCP seeks: to demonstrate to its citizens that other countries fear Chinese power and that there is an unjust double standard according to which China is enclosed and cannot leave its shore, while distant countries fly their planes and carry out naval exercises in front of the Chinese one. The language of hegemony describes the fact that China conducts military exercises near Taiwanese coasts as alarming: “‘The United States is very concerned by the People’s Republic of China’s provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability’, US state department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. ‘We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan’”.[10] By contrast, the naval exercises of the US and its allies are described as “an unmistakable message to Beijing”, or, in the words of Taiwan’s foreign minister, as “a show to the Chinese side that its military threat against other peace-loving countries wouldn’t have been tolerated”.[11] China is asked to stop doing in his backyard what others are doing thousand of kilometres away from theirs.

 

The question should rather be: when is the US going to cease its economic, military and diplomatic coercion towards China in order to protect its supremacy? When is the US going to withdraw their military personal from the bases on Okinawa, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other countries surrounding China? Will they stop selling arms to Taiwan to stop the militaristic escalation that puts a sword of Damocles on Taiwanese and Chinese on both sides of the Strait? Why does Anthony Blinken describe China’s military activity around Taiwan as “provocative and destabilizing”, while the constant crossings of US military ships (and British, Canadian, French…) across the Strait between Taiwan and China are poignantly described as a mere “challenge to China” in pursuit to defend “free navigation” (as if it did not exist or was threatened) and “a free and open Indo-Pacific” (for everyone except for China, we have to intuit)?[12] Just imagine that China facilitated the militarization of Cuba to the teeth and that its military ships circulated the space between Florida and the Caribbean island (or between Hawaii and California).

 

Of course, the Chinese military repeatedly condemns the US and its allies for sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, arguing that these are the actual threat to peace and stability in the region. However, these statements get much less visibility and, for some reason, are always briefly presented a posteriori, at the end of the articles, casting a shadow of suspicion on them. Why is it normalized that military ships and planes from these far away nations can circulate the Strait and realise military drills not far from the Chinese coast (for instance, a recent one north of Taiwan, with 17 vessels of six different countries[13]), while the pass of Chinese military vessels over international waters not far from its own coast is described as an act of aggression? Since, obviously, the conflict is not a matter of just one actor, so why China is considered the only aggressor? It is the result of this hegemony of the discourse that we are trying to unravel here.

 

We must bear in mind that historically it has been Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western powers that have invaded and colonized China, and not the other way around. Here the ADIZ myth has come into play to create the necessary noise and to install the political imaginary that the threat to the world is exclusively China. As Napoleon, a good imperialist, allegedly said: “Let China Sleep, For When She Wakes, She Will Shake The World”. More than “the world”, what might tremble is the absolute western hegemony, which is neither a synonymous thing nor necessarily a negative one. As Chomsky recently said, “once we abstract ourselves from thinking ‘we are exceptional’ and universalize issues, we start treating ourselves by the same standards that we apply to others”.[14] In other words, we need much more perspective and less antagonistic discourses of a Schmittian nature. Without attempting to whitewash the totalitarian actions that are contrary to the common good carried out by the PRC on multiple occasions (that should be condemned), in order to carry out an objective analysis of the conflict around Taiwan, it is essential to recognize the reasonable arguments of China and the excesses of the US and its allies in their efforts to control the region and annul its hegemonic rival. We would do well to start showing a broader perspective and stop digging trenches to consolidate the New Cold War.

 

However, it cannot be ignored that during these decades of conflict, a notable political modernization and a process of identity construction have created an idea of ​​a Taiwanese nation incompatible with the Chinese one. To propose the return of the island to the mainland would be a tragedy for a Taiwanese social majority that is incontestable (this is shown by all the studies and surveys that ask about it). And this is the core of the problem: that both sides have valid reasons, that the arguments of both sides are reasonable and logical, but incompatible in their resolution. That the Chinese fears of being surrounded and militarily besieged by an alliance of countries (including Taiwan) that do not desire China’s growth is no fantasy; that the historical memory of the “century of humiliation” and the partition of the Chinese territory in repeated instances is not an invention; that Taiwan is an historical part of China only separated due to the foreign interference is a fact. But that the Taiwanese desire to maintain their current high standard of living and freedoms is legitimate; that their irritation at the repeated warmongering threats from their neighbour makes perfect sense. This is why this conflict has become an endless problem, the answer to which seems impossible when the wishes of the parties are opposed and irreconcilable.

 

[1] A few examples: (1) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/04/us-condemns-china-for-provocative-aircraft-sorties-into-taiwan-defence-zone; (2) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/29/australian-military-to-continue-patrolling-south-china-sea-as-china-warns-taiwan-independence-means-war; (3) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/06/biden-says-he-and-chinas-xi-have-agreed-to-abide-by-taiwan-agreement

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/10/taiwan-scrambles-jet-fighters-after-chinese-aircraft-enter-airspace

[3] For example: (1) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/02/after-hong-kong-china-taiwan-invasion-armed-forces; (2) https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4026586; (3) https://www.insider.com/china-respond-to-all-threats-us-navy-destroyer-taiwan-strait-2021-3

[4] Bakhtiar, H. S., Djanur, N. A., Ashri, M., Hendrapati, M. (2016). Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in International Law Perspective. Journal of Law, Policy and Globalization, 56, p. 16.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/17/chinese-military-condemns-us-and-canada-over-warships-in-taiwan-strait

[6] https://amti.csis.org/chinas-adiz-at-one-year-international-legal-issues/

[7] https://amti.csis.org/chinas-adiz-at-one-year-international-legal-issues/

[8] Bakhtiar, H. S., Djanur, N. A., Ashri, M., Hendrapati, M. (2016). Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in International Law Perspective. Journal of Law, Policy and Globalization, 56, p. 16.

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/04/us-condemns-china-for-provocative-aircraft-sorties-into-taiwan-defence-zone

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/04/us-condemns-china-for-provocative-aircraft-sorties-into-taiwan-defence-zone

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/17/taiwan-calls-for-global-coalition-against-chinas-aggression-as-us-official-flies-in

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/29/two-us-warships-sail-through-taiwan-strait-in-challenge-to-china

[13] https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4306367

[14] https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2021/09/24/noam-chomsky-on-the-cruelty-of-american-imperialism?utm_campaign=the-economist-today&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_source=salesforce-marketing-cloud&utm_term=2021-09-24&utm_content=article-link-4&etear=nl_today_4

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