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Controversy over flight route M503

Chiu Bihui Taipei
February 2, 2018

Relations between China and Taiwan are again turning frosty, with about 176 charter flights between the two territories canceled ahead of the Lunar New Year. But the issue is not just about flights. Chiu Bihui reports.

Australien Notlandung China Eastern-Flugzeug
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AAP/P. Miller

Richard has been working in the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai for a long time. As in previous years, he has planned to celebrate the Lunar New Year holidays with his extended family in his native Taiwan.  

In late January, however, he received an unexpected message from the Chinese airline, China Eastern Airlines, informing him that his flight had been canceled. The reason, the company said, was the Taiwanese authorities had still not approved the request for additional charter flights two weeks before the scheduled departure.

At present, the only existing air corridor, A470, is being used to full capacity, with some 1,200 flights per day.

The disputed route M503

This latest dispute between China and Taiwan was triggered by the debate over the new flight route M503. On January 4, China launched new northbound flights on the M503 route, which lies just 7.4 kilometers away from the de facto sea and air border separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

Beijing also announced the extensions of the W121, W122 and W123 routes that service the Chinese cities of Xiamen, Fuzhou and Dongshan.

The routes are close to Taiwan's air-defense identification zone, an area that helps Taipei monitor possible incursions into its airspace.

While China says the new routes will ease congestion over the strait, Taiwan objects arguing that Beijing announced them without prior consultation with the government in Taipei. Following Taiwan's complaints, the Chinese government asserted that it did not need Taipei's permission to open those routes.

Karte Infografik chinesische Fluglinien nah an Taiwan ENG
The controversial flight routes between China and Taiwan over the Taiwan Strait

Compromise, but no agreement

China had previously wanted to open the routes in 2015, but shelved those plans after then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou protested.

Ma's China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party had a more productive partnership with Beijing, helping both sides to achieve a compromise. According to their deal, only north-to-south flights would be permitted on route M503 and the route would run ten kilometers west closer to the Chinese mainland. Also, the three connecting lines were put on hold. 

On March 29, 2015, the first flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong took off on the M503 flight route, which is now used up to 200 times a day, mainly for international flights.

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China wants more

In early January 2018, China suddenly changed its position by unilaterally declaring that it would also approve south-to-north flights on the route M503.

Taiwan demanded talks, but China refused. "The route is limited to Chinese airspace," said Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Chinese government's Taiwanese Affairs Bureau. "An agreement with Taiwan is not necessary," he added.

Consequently, Taiwan's civil aviation authority wrote to the airlines concerned ordering them not to use the route M503. International airlines halted their flights on the controversial route, while two Chinese airlines ignored Taiwan's demand. Besides China Eastern Airlines, the regional Xiamen Airlines used the W122 link without Taiwan's approval.

In a tit-for-tat move, Taiwan blocked Chinese airlines' applications for additional charter flights on the occasion of the Lunar New Year, which falls this year on February 16. On January 30, the airlines announced that they would no longer wait for a decision from Taiwan and canceled 176 charter flights, leaving 50,000 passengers stranded.

Taiwanese officials have not ruled out using military aircraft to fly their stranded fellow citizens back to Taiwan. An aviation authority spokesperson has also suggested revoking the licenses of the Chinese airlines.

China und Taiwan streiten über die Flugroute M503
Even on Thursday an aircraft took the controversial M503 route to fly to the northImage: Flightradar24.com

Swim from China to Taiwan?

Taiwanese business associations in China have been critical of the heated debate over the issue. "The government in Taipei should simply tell us: 'Unfortunately, you have to swim home with a lifebelt for the Lunar New Year,'" Lee Cheng-hung, the head of the Taiwanese entrepreneurs association in China, said angrily. The Taiwanese living in China, who simply want to travel home to visit their families, have been turned into political pawns, he criticized.

The Taiwanese government's approach has also been a topic of heated debate in the island republic.

The internet has been split into two factions: one arguing that the "entrepreneurs are the real victims" or "the aviation authority has gambled," while the other is questioning why the Taiwanese government is under fire instead of China and calling for the end to direct flights.

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A political cold front

Regular direct flights between China and Taiwan only began in 2009. Before that, passengers had to transfer at a third location. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

In 2016, the anti-communist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidential and parliamentary elections. President Tsai Ing-wen has since kept Beijing at arm's length. Although she wants to maintain the status quo, she would rather ignore the so-called "1992 consensus." 26 years ago, representatives from Beijing and Taipei agreed on the "One China principle." However, Beijing understands it as the "People's Republic of China," whereas Taipei sees it as the "Republic of China."

Who's to blame?

China is causing uncertainty and straining relations through these staged incidents, said Tong Li-wen, a Taiwanese political analyst and also a member of DPP. It should be noted, however, that the airlines themselves have withdrawn their applications, he added.

Sun Kuo-hsiang of the National Chung Hsing University in Taichung believes that Taiwanese President Tsai must clearly formulate her China policy. It was just too optimistic to assume that Beijing would move closer toward Tsai's government through negotiations, the expert said.

Sun Kuo-hsiang also alleged that China has long attempted to ignore the centerline in the Taiwan Strait as a de facto border, in a bid to force reunification. And the current discussion on the route M503 is a "steep learning curve."

Richard's family was, nevertheless, lucky. They managed to secure a flight in time - with an eight-hour stopover in Macau.

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