The latest issue to see a flare-up in the hostilities between China and Taiwan is taking place up in the air. As the focus on the increase in Chinese military flights around Taiwan has declined, mostly because the Taiwanese military has stopped publicizing them, commercial aviation has become the latest fighting ground.
On Jan. 4, China announced that some of their commercial airliners would begin to use four controversial routes that are either extremely close to Taiwanese airspace or cross existing Taiwanese domestic routes.
The Taiwanese Government had previously agreed with the Chinese regime that these routes would not be used without agreement from both sides. Indeed, such negotiations took place in 2015, which resulted in some Chinese flights using the controversial M503 route in a southbound direction.
But on this occasion, Beijing has once again taken a provocative stance. The Chinese Civil Aeronautics Authority stated that the move was needed "to alleviate air traffic and reduce flight delays," while a spokesperson for the Communist Party’s Taiwan Affairs Office described the issue as “an internal matter for China.”
This is, of course, a ludicrous stance. Regardless of your position on Taiwanese sovereignty, the reality is that China does not control the airspace over Taiwan. To ignore the reality of this and the existence of Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) is stubbornness in the extreme.
A tit-for-tat spat
Their position made a Taiwanese response inevitable and it duly came when denied applications for extra flights between Taiwan and China from two of the airless that would be using the new routes, China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Air.
China described that move as an act of "revenge" and in many regards, they are probably right. There is undoubtedly an element of tit-for-tat in the stance the Taiwanese aviation authorities have taken, especially given that they have encouraged other Chinese airlines to apply for additional flights.
But what choice did they have? In unilaterally reopening the M503 route and the east-west W121, W122 and W123, China is playing fast and loose with aviation safety in order to score some political points.
The three east-west routes are particularly concerning as they overlap with three existing Taiwanese routes (W6, W8 and W2) which serve the islands of Matsu and Kinmen. The decision has been condemned by international experts.
Xiamen Airlines. (Wikimedia Commons image)
But as ever, China has demonstrated zero concern for the safety of regular people or for basic international political norms. Aviation safety is an international issue which should be above politics. But then so should global healthcare and China determined efforts to stop Taiwan even observing the World Health Assembly shows exactly where their priorities lie.
As long as the Taiwanese government refuses to acknowledge the lines drawn in the sand by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the CCP will always prioritize their own nationalistic doctrine over any political agreement they might previously have made or any actions which might be for the greater good of the people of Taiwan and China.
The CCP’s total refusal to discuss matters of common interest such as this like adults leaves the Taiwanese authorities with little option but to use China’s own tactics to try and get their message across.
The danger with that, of course, is that the situation could spiral out of control. So, how can a mutually satisfactory resolution be reached?
Is a resolution possible?
Taiwan’s efforts to hold bilateral talks, highlighted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) over the weekend have fallen on deaf ears. So, the only way to get the two sides talking appears to be through a mediator.
The obvious choice for this would appear to be the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and hopefully, the Taiwanese authorities are leaning on them to put pressure on China to seek a resolution to this issue as quickly as possible.
But the ICAO has traditionally followed the Communist Party’s stance on issues relating to Taiwan. In this particular situation, it will be very hard for them to defend a policy which clearly poses an aviation safety risk, but whether they will have the political willpower to stand up to China remains to be seen. With support from other sympathetic countries, such as the USA, it must be hoped that they will try to do the right thing.
Not that China has a great record of doing what international organizations demand of it when it goes against the perceived interests of the CCP. Even an ICAO intervention might, therefore, have little impact.
Which means, like so many other issues like this, the chances are that the end-point of this petty spat will be an unsatisfactory stalemate which benefits no-one.