A renewed show of force by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on Wednesday to scare Taiwan has resulted in large swathes of the East China Sea and airspace southeast of Shanghai cordoned off.
The military drill has affected air traffic above one of China’s busiest airport clusters with planes being diverted from their original routes and passengers stranded for hours after their flights were either delayed or cancelled.
While the intended audience of the six-day drill ending next Monday – the independence-learning Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen and members of her caucus – will ignore the muscle-flexing as usual, airlines operating flights out of Shanghai and neighboring cities are taking flak.
There has been panic as their operations start to take the brunt of the collateral disruption since a massive no-fly zone roughly the size of Taiwan has been enforced.
Maritime authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang declared a restricted zone from 8am on July 18 to 6pm on July 23 off the coastal cities of Ningbo, Taizhou and Wenzhou, covering an area of about 30,000 square kilometers.
The Chinese military is believed to have engaged top-flight pilots and marines from its East Sea Fleet to test its coordinated sea-air offensive tactics that may involve H-6K strategic bombers and J-2o stealth air-superiority fighters.
The Beijing-based Global Times quoted a military expert as saying the drill would be a joint operation aimed at simulating real combat. The ruling party-run tabloid also issued a caveat on its Weibo account, saying airline passengers should not get angry if their trips are affected.
“Think about patriotism, think about those PLA soldiers who gave up their lives in the line of duty, and get ready to make some ‘sacrifice’ of your own to support national defense and sovereignty … When servicemen hone their skills to defend the country and your family, you should also do your own part and be calm, cooperative and well-mannered if your flight is delayed.”
The paper also warned people not to take photos of warplanes at civil airports also used by the PLA during the period and suggested frequent flyers buy flight delay insurance to “cash in some rewards.”
The last time Beijing held such a high-profile exercise to send a warning to Taiwan – which it considers a wayward province – was in April.
In July and August 2014, the PLA was heavily criticized for shutting off airspace in Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu for a similar deployment that affected thousands of flights per day during the drill.
China’s defense ministry insisted back then that the exercises were only one of many factors causing the delays, but figures from the China Civil Aviation Administration disputed that claim. Inclement weather made up less than 20% of the delays, while “traffic control,” a euphemism for disruptions caused by military activities, accounted for more than one third of such occurrences, Xinhua reported.
Even without the restrictions, a mere 20% of China’s airspace is open to civil aviation, compared with 80% in the US. However, the PLA was silent after appeals to open up more air space were made in the world’s second largest aviation market.