TAIPEI (REUTERS) – For nearly 70 years an imagined line running down the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China has helped keep the peace but the so-called median line is looking increasingly meaningless as China’s modernised navy asserts its strength.
China has 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 largely respected it.
Now Taiwan is bracing for warships from China’s much larger navy routinely pushing over the line as part of the steps an angry Beijing has taken to protest against a visit to Taipei earlier this month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“They want to increase pressure on us with the end goal of us giving up the median line,” said one Taiwanese official familiar with security planning in the region.
“They want to make that a fact,” said the official, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue.
Some Taiwanese officials say it would be “impossible” for the island to abandon the concept of a buffer that the line represents.
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told a news conference this month a change in the status quo could not be tolerated.
“We need to join our hands with like-minded partners to make sure that the median line is still there, to safeguard peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Mr Wu said.
Other officials and security analysts warn that it would be difficult for the island to defend the line without raising the risk of dangerous escalation.
Taiwan would have to react militarily if Chinese forces entered its 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, the Taiwan official said, but apart from that, there was no immediate plan to give the military or coastguard more authority to respond.
President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly said Taiwan will neither provoke nor escalate conflict.
It is questionable whether international support for Taiwan is sufficient to deter China from patrolling into Taiwan’s side of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, or if Taiwan’s friends would help it maintain the line.
Ships of the US and other Western navies sail through the strait to highlight what they maintain is its international status, not to strictly enforce the imaginary line that has no legal standing.
The Taiwan Strait is some 180km wide and at its narrowest, the median line is about 40km from Taiwan’s waters.