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What is the Median Line Between China and Taiwan?

This handout photograph taken and released on May 11, 2018 by Taiwan's Defence Ministry shows a Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft (L) flying alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6K bomber. (AFP)
This handout photograph taken and released on May 11, 2018 by Taiwan's Defence Ministry shows a Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft (L) flying alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6K bomber. (AFP)
What is the Median Line Between China and Taiwan?
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Taiwan often talks about a median line when its military meets up with Chinese fighter jets in airspace between the island and China’s mainland. Experts say the two sides have never agreed on the median line, so China believes it can cross it without violating any agreement.

The line runs from an area near Japan's southern islands to the southwest, near Hong Kong, through the middle of the Taiwan Strait. A Taiwan Ministry of National Defense employee who did not want to be named said this week that it "has just one definition."

That definition is found in a 2019 report by the government-supported Central News Agency. A former defense minister detailed the line's exact position coordinates during a legislative hearing in 2004, the report said.

Yet a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in September that the median line does not exist. Experts in Taiwan say the line was established with the help of the United States during the Cold War, when Western countries competed against the Soviet Union and its allies. However, the median line never reached the level of an official agreement.

Taiwan strait
Taiwan strait

"It's not to say that some previous deal is being violated against Taiwan, because actually no third party was ever in the middle, nor did any two parties sign a legally binding agreement," said Huang Chung-ting. Huang is researcher with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. "It's just an understanding based on politics," Huang said.

The median line is in place to help Taiwan and the mainland avoid mistakes. But it has become a point of disagreement this year as Chinese warplanes repeatedly cross it, causing Taiwan to scramble planes to meet them. As of October 7, Chinese military aircraft had flown 49 times across the line in 2020. That is the highest number in any year since 1990.

Median line crossings add to a growing list of problems between Taiwan and mainland China. The mainland has taken economic actions against Taiwan and pressured Taiwan's few diplomatic allies to recognize Beijing as the capital instead of Taipei.

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and states that the two sides should unite in the future. The sides split in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland and Chinese nationalist forces moved to Taiwan.

Taiwan is self-ruled and President Tsai Ing-wen rejects China's call for talks based on the idea that both sides belong to one country.

The U.S. government has increased support for Taiwan this year. That support included arms sales, which have angered China. The U.S. government says it is required by a 1979 law to consider helping Taiwan’s military if the island is attacked.

Median line crossings still put Chinese aircraft at least 80 kilometers from Taiwan's coast. But China has never suspended the threat of force, if needed, to make the two sides unify. China’s warplane activity in 2020 has caused some in Taiwan to wonder whether China is preparing to attack.

Observers note that China honors the line that splits the 160-kilometer wide Taiwan Strait when it has good relations with Taiwan's leadership. But the Chinese government believes its planes can cross the line when relations get worse.

"It's a line for many meanings. One is for some kind of goodwill between Taiwan and mainland," said Alexander Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. "When there is a relatively calm situation, then both sides try not to infringe upon or cross the line."

The median line is unrelated to either side's civilian airspace. Those territorial borders extend 22 kilometers from the coast. Taiwan also enforces an air defense identification zone. It was established as an additional protection against Chinese warplanes, noted Huang Chung-ting. The identification zone also overlaps Chinese airspace.

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Ralph Jennings reported this story for Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

coordinates –n.(pl.) a set of numbers used to locate a position on a map

median –adj. the middle value, in the middle

previous –adj. happening before the present time

binding –adj. requiring a person or group to do something because of an agreement or promise

scramble –v. to quickly move into position, (mil.) to quickly activate military aircraft

sovereignty – n. power or self-rule

infringe –v. to do something that does not follow a rule or law

overlap –n. to lie over the edge of something, to go beyond an edge into something else

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