CARTOON: Airplane Wars

CARTOON: Airplane Wars

What you need to know

A tit-for-tat spat over airline routes highlights the deplorable state of cross-Strait ties.

“Teacher! He’s in my space again!”

So came the protests from Taiwan after China followed increasingly aggressive military flights close to Taiwan’s airspace late last year with the unilateral announcement of new airline routes that track precariously close to the Taipei Flight Information Region.

Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) this week responded by rejecting flight applications that intended to use the new routes.

The CAA turned down requests from Chinese carriers Eastern Airlines and XiamenAir for 176 extra flights to Taiwan during the Lunar New Year holidays, which begin in mid-February.

The tit-for-tat situation has been compared to a schoolyard spat, but is fairly typical of the impasse in cross-Strait relations since the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration and its refusal to acknowledge the “One China” concept. Tsai’s calls for dialogue on the matter, which a presidential spokesman warned hurt regional stability, have fallen on deaf ears in Beijing.

On Jan. 4, China launched new northbound flights on the M503 route, which flies just 7.4 km away from the median line of the Taiwan Strait along China’s southeast coast, as well as extensions of the W121, W122 and W123 routes that service the Chinese cities of Xiamen Fuzhou and Dongshan.

This is not a new issue, having come to the fore in 2015 when China pulled a similar move, only for Beijing to settle on the opening of a solely southbound M503 route following emergency talks. That agreement occurred amid warmer cross-Strait relations under the administration of former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jiu (馬英九).

Taiwan has voiced various protests, including that the extensions overlap existing flight paths from Taiwan that serve the islands of Matsu and Kinmen, raising safety concerns.

Beijing is also required by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations to consult affected parties before opening new routes, a fact that Taiwan has raised with the regulatory body – as yet to no avail.

In defending its stance, China’s State Council spokesman Ma Xiaoguang pointed to congestion on northbound routes from Hong Kong, Macau and South Asia as the reason for the decision, highlighting the typically extended delays on routes to Shanghai Pudong Airport.

“It is an internal affair for the mainland,” the spokesman said, adding that China had notified Taiwanese authorities of the move as per the agreement made by the two sides in 2015.

Taiwan insists that agreement required the acquiescence of both sides before the routes could be opened.

Stay tuned.

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Editor: David Green