TAIPEI – Taiwan filed an objection with the United Nations aviation agency over new commercial flight routes off China’s southeastern coast that it said poses a safety risk to its planes.
“The mainland should not implement the new routes before the negotiations are completed,” the Central News Agency reported Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin as saying Thursday. Taiwan threatened to “evict” any planes that stray into its airspace and lodged a protest with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
In announcing the routes Wednesday, China called on Taiwan to show “more understanding and less suspicion” toward the opening of four flight paths, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said in Beijing. The paths will help ease aviation congestion between Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta, Ma said.
China’s declaration risks escalating tensions with Taiwan, an island China claims as its territory. The country is flexing its military muscle in a region dominated for decades by the U.S. and still aims more than 1,200 missiles across the Taiwan Strait after more than 60 years of separate rule.
In November 2013, China declared an air defense identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea amid a territorial dispute with Japan. More recently, last August, two Chinese military airplanes entered Taiwanese air space after another Chinese fighter performed a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft near Hainan Island in southern China.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Monday it will step up surveillance of aviation activity near the median line of the Taiwan Strait in case of “unexpected situations” and pledged to monitor, intercept and escort out any intruders in accordance with the rules of engagement.
“Observers in Taipei have long cautioned that seemingly more incremental, coercive measures undertaken by Beijing in the vicinity of Taiwan could serve as a means of discreetly laying the groundwork for future aggression,” Iskander Rehman, a Washington-based fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote in an email.
Three of the four new routes approved — the W121, W122 and W123 — run east-west and connect to the new north-south M503 route, which is west of the Taiwan Strait’s center line. The closest that route M503 comes to the center line of the Taiwan Strait is 7.8 km, Central News Agency reported, citing the island’s Civil Aeronautics Administration.
Route M503 is too close to the Taipei flight information region, the CAA said Monday. The region covers airspace where Taiwan provides flight information and an alerting service. Routes W121, W122 and W123 could affect flights between Taiwan and the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu, the CAA said.
The island’s transport ministry called the new routes “unacceptable” and said their operation would pose safety risks.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said in an email that it has no plans at the moment to use the new routes.
Taiwan and China have held two rounds of talks to date and the ICAO — the U.N. agency that oversees international civil aviation, developing policies and standards — approved the routes, according to Ma from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The new flight paths will become operational from March 5, Ma said.
In September 2013, China agreed to Taiwan officials participating as guests at a two-week ICAO assembly for the first time since the island government lost its seat in the agency in 1971.