The Taiwan Strait is International Waters
The U.S. considers the Taiwan Strait to be international waters, not Chinese territory.
The island of Taiwan is located approximately 100 miles off the east coast of China, across a body of water called the Taiwan Strait.* The Taiwan Strait is part of the South China Sea, and China has claimed the area as its territorial waters.
However, the United States has consistently said that it considers the waterway to be international waters rather than Chinese territory. In May of 2019, U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen commented that “The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.” His comment came after two U.S. Navy ships had sailed through the Taiwan Strait. In May of 2022, the Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet said “The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit … through international waters in accordance with international law. The Ship transited through a corridor in the Strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal State.” See below for a quote explaining this statement.
The United States have sailed vessels through these waters for many years. Other countries – like Australia, Canada, and France – have done the same. However, misleading headlines often reference these types of transits as antagonizing China or as increasing tensions with the PRC, which embraces the PRC view rather than the international view. The truth is that these types of transits are a routine part of FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) for the U.S. Navy in the Indo-Pacific.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a party, China enjoys a 12 nautical mile territorial sea off of its coasts. China does not consider Taiwan to be a sovereign state, and therefore claims the 12 nautical miles off of Taiwan’s coast as its territorial sea as well. However, regardless of the status of Taiwan as a country, the Taiwan Strait still contains a corridor of international waters and airspace beyond the territorial sea of any state. Within this corridor of international waters and airspace, all states and their vessels enjoy freedoms of navigation and overflight and all internationally lawful uses of the sea and air.
While China may have limited rights and jurisdiction in the parts of the Strait that comprise its contiguous zone (CZ) and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), it does not have sovereignty over these areas. CZs and EEZs are international waters in which high seas freedoms of navigation and oversight apply. The area above these international waters is commonly known as “international airspace” and is similarly not subject to any nation’s sovereignty. Under UNCLOS, even within China’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea, other nations may exercise “innocent passage” without China’s permission, meaning that they can engage in activities that do not harm “the peace, good order, or security” of a coastal state, as defined in the treaty. Aircraft do not have an analogous right to overflight of the territorial sea.
* Technically consisting of two straits, which is why the waterway is sometimes referred to as the Taiwan Straits