An imaginary line running down the middle of the Taiwan Strait between China and the island of Taiwan has kept the peace for nearly 70 years, but the so-called middle line is increasingly meaningless as China’s modernized navy asserts its power.
The line was invented by a US general in 1954 amid tensions between Communist China and US-backed Taiwan at the height of the Cold War. China has never officially recognized this line, but the country’s People’s Liberation Army largely adheres to it.
But Beijing was furious when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei a few weeks ago. In response, China conducted massive military exercises in the waters surrounding the island of Taiwan. Now ships from the country’s increasingly powerful navy routinely cross that median line.
“They are constantly increasing pressure on us with the aim of getting us to leave the middle line,” said a Taiwanese official familiar with the region’s security plans, according to Reuters.
“They are trying to make it a reality,” said the official, who declined to be identified as the matter is sensitive.
Some Taiwanese officials said it would be “impossible” for the island to abandon the idea that the median line is acting as a buffer.
At a press conference this month, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said attempts to change the status quo would not be tolerated.
“We need to join hands with our like-minded partners to ensure that the middle line remains there to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait, to maintain peace,” Wu said.
Other officials and security analysts warned it would be difficult for the island to defend the line without increasing the risk of a dangerous situation.
If Chinese forces enter within 12 nautical miles of the territorial waters, Taiwan will respond militarily, Wu said; But beyond that, there are no immediate plans to give the military or the Coast Guard additional authority to respond to such situations, Reuters reported.
President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly said that Taiwan will not provoke or escalate conflict.
Reuters reports that it is questionable whether Taiwan’s international support is enough to deter Chinese patrols in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes near the island, and whether Taiwan’s friends will help the island maintain that median line.
US and other Western navies pass through the strait to demonstrate that they are upholding its international status, but not strictly to maintain an imaginary line that has no legal status.
The Taiwan Strait is 180 km wide and at its narrowest point the center-line is 40 km from Taiwan’s territorial waters.
Taiwanese officials have warned that China’s established naval presence near Taiwan’s waters would strain Taiwan’s military and make a Chinese blockade or invasion much easier.
Ultimately, a redundant median line would further challenge the US’s long-standing dominance in the seas near China and help China project its power in the Pacific.
There is no system marking it in the middle of the Taiwan Strait. China has quietly acknowledged it for years, but in 2020 a spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry issued a statement claiming it “does not exist”. Later, the country’s Ministry of Defense and the Council on Taiwan Affairs also said the same thing.
Recently, the warships of these two sides have been playing ‘cat and mouse’ in the Taiwan Strait, with Chinese ships crossing the middle line in a strategy to bypass Taiwan’s patrol vessels.
Chinese warplanes also crossed the line this month, albeit only a short distance, something the Chinese air force has rarely done in the past.
China’s defense ministry did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
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