On January 4, the People’s Republic of China announced the opening of four new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait. Instead of giving the region some time to process the announcement, planes began using these routes the same day. Due to the location of the routes and the unilateral nature of the announcement, Taiwan has protested the opening of the routes.
The new paths consist of one northbound route (M503) and three east-west extension routes (W121, W122, W123) that link to the main one. Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) has estimated that over 20 flights have used these routes daily since their opening.
In the announcement, China noted that opening up these additional routes would help with delays in an already congested flight area. To the casual observer, such an announcement makes sense: if there are too many flights on a specific route, it would make sense to open new ones to prevent flight delays. Who likes when their flight is delayed?
Behind these new flight routes, however, is the poor state of cross-Strait relations. Since May 2016, China has cut official communication with Taiwan due to the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen and her refusal to acquiesce in Beijing’s demand that she accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the related “one China Principle.” China has also recently increased the number of “island encirclement” missions, whereby Chinese bombers and surveillance planes fly around Taiwan and occasionally breach its Air Defense Zone. Talk of a Chinese invasion—although the possibility of invasion remains remote—has been a topic of much discussion since December 2017, particularly after a Chinese diplomat threatened invasion if a U.S. ship ever makes a port call in Taiwan. When compared to these other issues, a commercial flight route could be seen as innocuous.
But the new flight route is all a part of China’s strategy—ratchet up pressure on Taiwan in both large and small ways—especially while the world is focused on the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. If China continues to increase measures to force Tsai’s hand, which of the many threats would she ask China to limit or remove first?
In response to the announcement, Tsai tweeted: “Cross-strait stability is [important] to regional stability. Recent unilateral actions by #China – including M503 flight route & increased military exercises – are destabilizing & should be avoided. #Taiwan will continue to safeguard the status quo. We call on all parties to do the same.”
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reiterated Tsai’s point in a statement saying, “We believe . . . this is purposefully using civil aviation as a cover for improper intentions regarding Taiwan politics and even military affairs.”
China opened a similar route in January 2015, and Taiwan protested due to aviation safety concerns—the flights then (and now) were 7.8km away from Taiwanese airspace and cross paths with some domestic Taiwanese flights. By March 2015, Taiwan and China reached an agreement that one southbound flight route would remain open but the route was moved further west and that before China would open new routes, it would do so after consultation with Taiwan.
There is one slight, yet extremely important, difference between the 2015 spat and now. In 2015, the president of Taiwan was Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang, the party that advocates for closer ties with China. Now, in 2018, Tsai Ing-wen is president, and she is a member of the Democratic Progress Party, the party with a less favorable view of China. That’s the only change in the situation and thus the reason that the routes were opened again and the reason that China won’t be as amenable to compromise this time.
Taiwan under Tsai has limited leverage to push back against a more recalcitrant China, but it has done several things to make its stance known to China and the world. To try to press China into some sort of dialogue, Tsai’s government has called on the United States, Canada, and other countries to support Taiwan in this endeavor and for their planes to avoid using the new route. On January 18, the Taiwan CAA confirmed that it “has provisionally delayed approval of applications by two China-based airlines to operate additional cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year holiday in protest at China’s unilateral decision to launch a northbound M503 route.” This postponement will affect nearly 200 flights and about 50,000 passengers.
Tsai has also made Taiwan’s stance known to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN organization that deals with global aviation issues. Unfortunately, since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is also not a member ICAO and cannot broach the topic directly. It must work through other indirect channels, specifically its formal and informal allies in ICAO. ICAO is not likely to do anything with Taiwan’s complaint because Taiwan is not allowed to be a member of the organization. Moreover, the Secretary General of the organization is a Chinese citizen, and Taiwan was excluded from the 39th Assembly in Montreal in 2016 after attending at China’s request in 2013.
For these reasons, it is unlikely that ICAO will work in favor of Taiwan even though according to ICAO guidelines, before a country makes a change to a flight route, it must work with “all parties concerned.” And China did not do that. In fact, China only notified Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration two hours before it sent out the official notification. At of the time of writing, ICAO has not formally responded to Taiwan’s complaint.
For its part, the United States has encouraged “authorities in Beijing and Taipei to engage in constructive dialogue, on the basis of dignity and respect,” but has not done much else. The United States should be more forceful in its rebuke of China’s unilateral action because since Tsai’s inauguration, China has shown it is not willing to have any dialogue with Taiwan. For now, to quote the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again” for cross-Strait relations.