Route M503 runs almost parallel with the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, where a new unilateral two-way traffic arrangement has been made by China. Photo: Central News Agency
Route M503 runs almost parallel with the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, where a new unilateral two-way traffic arrangement has been made by China. Photo: Central News Agency

Flying into Taipei from Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines at the end of the Lunar New Year festival is typically a routine affair. I had booked my flight back in December, but in early January, China Eastern canceled 212 additional flights between mainland China and Taiwan planned for the holiday period.

Xiamen Airlines canceled at least 70 of its additional flights, accusing Taiwan of being “heartless” for putting the travel plans of some 50,000 returning passengers and their holiday plans in jeopardy.

But what seemed to be an easy propaganda win for Beijing deserves further examination. The additional flights by the two mainland airlines included new routes that were unilaterally declared by Beijing.

Beijing’s launch of northbound flight route M503 was deemed by Taipei as posing a threat to its security, as the new routing passed close to a training area for the Taiwanese air force and some 8 kilometers from the line dividing the strait between Taiwan and the mainland, decreasing the amount of time during which Taiwan’s air force could respond to a future air attack.

Beijing also unilaterally announced three other east-west extension air routes, which Taipei objected to by refusing permission for China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Air to fly the extra cross-strait flights during the holiday period between February 15 and 20. Two of the air routes would pass close to the offshore islands of Matsu and Kinmen.

While the new routings were only slight changes to existing flight paths, they bring to mind Beijing’s “salami-slicing” technique used to improve its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Over the past few years, Beijing has constructed and militarized artificial islands, laying claim to surrounding waters (despite an international ruling against such actions).

So far, such slices are not considered sizable enough to fight over by the littoral nations and the great naval powers in the region. But in similar fashion, Beijing now appears to be slicing off small pieces of airspace incrementally – just enough to show Taipei it is serious about eventual reunification without sparking war.

Yet Beijing’s recent actions have sparked international condemnation. Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the launch of new flight paths without consultation with Taiwan was dangerous to air safety and an issue that required the international community to take action. J Michael Cole, a senior non-resident fellow with the China Policy Institute and the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham in England, added that the new flight plan “reneges on the conditions agreed upon between the two sides in 2015.”

While many returning Taiwanese did arrive safely, and my flight was delayed only 30 minutes, others were discouraged and did not get to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their relatives in Taiwan.

Given the latest machinations of Beijing, one wonders how the M503 incident will play out in the upcoming Taipei mayoral election in November. Will the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), which favors closer ties to the mainland, have gained sympathy and momentum over the incident, or will the Taiwanese cynically view the salami-slicing action by Beijing as another example of squeezing their sovereignty?

Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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