(Bloomberg) -- China’s assertions that the Taiwan Strait doesn’t qualify as international waters raises tensions over the nautical flash point, through which US warships transit in a symbolic challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims over the democratically governed island.

While it’s unclear what Beijing means by “international waters,” the language may be intended to deter the US from sailing through the strait, a practice which China has said harms stability and sends the wrong signal to “Taiwan independence forces.” Chinese officials have made such remarks repeatedly in meetings with US counterparts in recent months, according to a person familiar with the situation, in what seems to be a change of position. 

The US, however, is unlikely to be stopped by the more assertive language from China, whose claims over Taiwan have taken on a new focus after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. It will probably keep conducting what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the strait, seeing if Beijing will back its words with actions.

“The US will just ignore it, as they have in many other instances,” said Donald Rothwell, a professor at the Australian National University College of Law. “It’s how China responds that will be critical. If you go back and look at tensions during the Cold War, there were physical clashes between warships.”

While this jostling between the US and the Soviet Union never led to an exchange of fire, it did fuel concerns about potential miscalculation, Rothwell added. 

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin reiterated at a regular news briefing Monday that China claimed “sovereignty” over the Taiwan Strait. 

“There is no such thing as international waters in international maritime law,” Wang said at a regular briefing in Beijing. “Relevant countries claim that the Taiwan Strait is in international waters with the aim to manipulate the Taiwan question and threaten China’s sovereignty.”

In 2017, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, “The Taiwan Strait is an international waterway shared by the mainland and Taiwan.”

American warships transit the Taiwan Strait several times a year while en route between the East and South China Seas, averaging one such trip a month in 2021. The US Navy has conducted at least three transits so far this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

A lack of clarity in China’s language makes it hard to judge how far officials are seeking to redefine the status of the strait, according to Bec Strating, associate professor of politics and international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who has researched and written on the issue. 

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified, but the US has not, nations are entitled to territorial waters stretching 12 nautical miles from their coast. They may also claim an exclusive economic zone stretching another 200 nm. Beyond that, are the high seas.

“It’s not clear what international waters means,” Strating said. “Navigating states have different rights depending on whether it’s internal waters, territorial sea or an EEZ.”

Even if the Chinese were to use the same legal terms as other countries, there were other potential pitfalls in that it doesn’t interpret the associated rights in the same way as the US and its allies. China seeks to restrict what militaries can do in the area they claim as their EEZ, while the US and its allies have a much freer interpretation.

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All this is further complicated by the fact that the US isn’t a member of UNCLOS, because of the difficulty of getting such treaties passed by Congress. The US position is that the convention is “reflective of customary international law,” which is another basis for claiming such rights, according to Rothwell.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns have heightened in Asia about the possibility of China making a similar grab for control over Taiwan, an island of 23 million people, whose world-beating semiconductor industry makes it a cornerstone of global industry. 

Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at the Australian National University’s Taiwan studies program, said China’s messaging was more likely a response to the growing tendency for other countries to refer publicly to the importance of security in the strait at international meetings, most recently one between the defense ministers of Japan, South Korea and the US.

“China is unlikely to forcefully confront naval vessels entering the Taiwan Strait, because the risk of escalation is exceedingly high,” Sung said. “China’s objective is to deter what it sees as a growing internationalization of the Taiwan issue.”

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