A step in the right direction

The announcement that China will adjust the route of one of its recently proposed flight paths westward, and delay implementation of the other three, is a welcome sign of accommodation and understanding in relations between Taiwan and China. Hopefully the move will help both sides of the strait avoid further build-ups in the simmering dispute over increasingly crowded airspace between Taiwan and China.

The controversy was sparked by China’s sudden announcement of the four new routes on January 12. The longest of the four, M503, came dangerously near to the middle line of the Taiwan Strait, approaching as close as 4.2 nautical miles or 7.8km from the midline.

York Chen, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council who now teaches strategy at Tamkang University, notes that China attempted to establish new flight routes near the Taiwan Strait once before. In November 2007 Beijing announced that it was designating routes very similar to the ones announced in January, albeit at a slightly greater distance from the strait midline.

The Chen Shui-bian administration responded by expressing its concern to diplomatic representatives of several foreign nations including American Institute in Taiwan. As a result, China re-considered the proposal and ultimately dropped its plan for new routes following strong pressure from the US.

This time around Taiwan had been allowed to sit in on two sessions at the International civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in December where China raised the prospect of adding new routes in the Taiwan Strait. At that time Taiwan officials expected to continue discussing the proposal with China, but were caught off guard when China made its unilateral announcement of the decision on January 12.

Taiwan’s first reaction came a day later on January 13 when the Ministry of National Defense (MND) protested the Chinese proposal and declared that it would continue to use flight paths designated long ago for military training flights. The MND explained that establishing additional civil aviation routes nearby on the other side of the midline would seriously impact the ability of ROC military aircraft to operate along its own designated corridors in the strait.

One can only wonder what might have happened if Taiwan – and Japan and Korea – had been more forceful in the objections they raised when China announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in late 2013. The new ADIZ, which overlaps a section of Taiwan’s airspace, was carefully laid out to avoid including Yonaguni Island, an isolated island which Japan administers and which lies only 70km from the northernmost point of Taiwan. Japan adjusted its own ADIZ in 2012 to include Yonaguni.

At the same time, the Chinese ADIZ would cause the US to think twice about airlifting troops and supplies to Taiwan from Japan or Korea in the event of a crisis involving China and Taiwan. International reaction to China’s announcement of the ADIZ also pointed out that it specified that aircraft flying in the East China Sea ADIZ would be required to identify themselves even when their destination was not a city in China. This is different from ADIZs maintained by most nations, which require aircraft to identify themselves only if they intend to enter national airspace.

The Chinese decision to move the M503 route westward is not actually that much of a concession. It will shift the M503 corridor 6 nautical miles further west from the original layout, leaving it some 18km to 19km from the midline of the Taiwan Strait. In addition, China will allow only south-bound flights to use that route, according to Director General Lin Chih-ming of Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). China also says it is shelving its proposal for the other three flight paths, which would have crossed routes that connect the main island of Taiwan with the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. China has not said whether it might choose to impose the three shorter lines at a later date.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the flight plan episode is that officials from Taiwan and China continued to discuss the matter even after Taiwan experienced some turbulence on its side. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) had said the flight plan issue would be on the table at a meeting with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) in Kinmen February 7. That meeting was abruptly cancelled when MAC Minister Wang Yu-chi handed in his resignation after a Taiwan court dismissed charges against MAC’s former Deputy Minister Chang Hsien-yao. Chang had been accused of covertly forwarding information regarding Taiwan’s negotiating positions to Chinese officials before meetings.

With MAC sidelined by the need to regroup after Wang’s departure, other avenues of communications were explored, and a breakthrough came when representatives of civil airline associations from Taiwan and China reached a consensus on the issue during a meeting in Shanghai early Monday.

Current MAC Deputy Minister Wu Mei-hung, who is in charge of China policy at the council, appeared in a joint news conference with the CAA Monday and said Taiwan welcomes the Chinese announcement. "The results demonstrate that rational and pragmatic negotiations have positive implications for maintaining cross-strait peace and stability," she said

Cabinet spokesman Sun Lih-chyun echoed Wu’s comments, saying that China's decision to delay enforcing the new flight paths is the result of "reasonable communications" and will serve the interests of both sides of the strait. "As long as we hold a positive and reasonable attitude toward communicating and interacting with the other side,” said Sun, “the results will benefit both sides."

Perhaps Taiwan gains rather little in the overall back-and-forth over the issue, but at least neither Taiwan nor China loses a great deal of face.

York Chen warns, however, that the flight path issue is yet another example of the great pleasure China takes in "eating Taiwanese tofu" (taking advantage of Taiwan) , especially when it makes inroads into Taiwan’s sovereignty. He castigated the Ma Ying-jeou government for focusing too much on peripheral issues like flag-raising ceremonies while disregarding more serious matters related to national security and aviation safety.

Chen expresses the concern shown by many observers that China regards the Taiwan Strait as an inland lake, an attitude that leads to actions like the ADIZ and flight path incidents.

We can probably look forward to more such attempts from China in the future.