Mainland’s adjustment to Straits flight route serves aviation safety, alleviate congestion: Taiwan Affairs Office
Published: Jan 31, 2024 10:15 PM
A view of the Taiwan Straits is seen from Xiamen port, in East China's Fujian Province. Photo: IC

A view of the Taiwan Straits is seen from Xiamen port, in East China's Fujian Province. Photo: IC

The M503 flight path is for civil aviation in the Shanghai Flight Information Region, and operating the route is aimed at easing traffic congestion and ensuring flight safety, a Chinese mainland official said on Wednesday, in response to the secessionist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)'s hype of and opposition to the mainland's adjustment to Taiwan Straits flight routes.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China on Tuesday announced that from February 1, the deviation of the M503 flight route from north to south will be canceled, a change which the Taiwan authorities interpreted would see southbound aircraft flight paths above the Taiwan Straits come closer to Taiwan's self-claimed "median line," "flight information region," and "air defense identification zone."

M503's connecting routes W122 and W123 from west to east will be also activated. Those routes link M503 respectively with the mainland cities Fuzhou and Xiamen in East China's Fujian Province.  

Approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the mainland established the M503 flight path and its connecting routes W121, W122 and W123 in January 2015 to ease traffic pressure on the A470 flight path. After negotiations with Taiwan authorities, the mainland side agreed to a deviation in the M503 flight path of six nautical miles (11kilometers) to the west in the direction of the mainland, since the island believed that the M503 route was only 4.2 nautical miles from the "median line" of the Taiwan Straits. The mainland decided at that time not to activate the connecting W121, W122 and W123. 

Taiwan's mainland affairs office on Tuesday expressed opposition, saying the move "disregards aviation safety and shows disrespect for Taiwan," as it appears to be a deliberate attempt to use civil aviation as a cover for political, and possibly military intentions aimed at altering the status quo in the Taiwan Straits." 

In response, Chen Binhua, a Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson, said on Wednesday that the M503 route is a civilian route within the Shanghai Flight Information Region, and was launched to ease congestion in the relevant airspace and to safeguard aviation safety.

He stressed that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory, and there is no such thing as the "median line" of the Taiwan Straits.

Rightful, proper move

Since the mainland opened the M503 flight path in March 2015, the route from north to south has run smoothly. Most airlines from Hong Kong, Macao and Southeast Asia fly this route, according to the Xinhua News Agency. Before this, more than 1,200 flights per day using this airspace had to rely on the saturated A470 flight path, causing serious congestion and delays, with an average on-schedule rate of only 46 percent. This poses safety risks.

In 2015, cross-Straits relations were smooth under the political basis of the 1992 Consensus, so the mainland agreed to a deviation in the route setting of M503, which was due to the mainland's kindness, said Ni Yongjie, director of the Shanghai Institute of Taiwan Studies.

More than eight years have passed and demand for international and cross-Straits flights is increasing, especially considering the huge demand for flights during the upcoming Spring Festival holidays, so the mainland decided to make air route adjustments, Ni said. 

According to spokesperson Chen Binhua, airlines on both sides of the Taiwan Straits can schedule no more than 890 passenger flights per week between 61 destinations on the mainland and 10 destinations on the island of Taiwan. Although the number of direct flights across the Taiwan Straits have increased compared with the COVID period, due to the limited flight points, cross-Straits exchanges are still inconvenient.

The mainland has been preparing for the full resumption of cross-Straits air routes. The DPP authorities should remove unreasonable restrictions on cross-Straits air transport as soon as possible to meet the travel needs of people on both sides of the Straits, especially the people in Taiwan, Chen said. 

Some observers in Taiwan believe that the adjustment, especially the activation of the connecting routes W121 and W122, will serve to reduce costs and flight times, as flights from Xiamen and Fuzhou will no longer need to detour along the northern route. 

This is an adjustment under the one-China principle, within the scope of China's sovereignty and out of the need for civil aviation safety and convenience, and it is absolutely rightful and proper, Li Zhenguang, deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies under Beijing Union University, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

In 2015, the mainland and Taiwan island could accommodate each other's feelings through negotiations, but since the DPP came to power in 2016, the common political foundation has been destroyed by the DPP. It chose to confront the mainland without showing any kindness, Li said. "Therefore, the mainland has to adjust its policies according to its own needs," he said.

In the long run, the adjustment of air routes is also to meet the needs of compatriots on both sides of the Straits, to meet the needs of economic development on both sides of the Straits. It will enhance the interests of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, and it will inject positive energy for cross-Straits relations, Ni said.

The overreacted DPP 

Besides opposition from Taiwan's mainland affairs authority, the island's civil aviation department and even the "external affairs" authority on the island also expressed strong opposition, which is rarely seen.  

In a statement released on Wednesday, the "external affairs" authority on the island of Taiwan said they launched "the harshest condemnation" against the mainland. But they replaced the term mainland with "China," showing a strong sense of secession.  

Pro-DPP analysts on the island advocated that the mainland's move "will increase the pressure on Taiwan's air defense," and negate the island's "restricted airspace" in the way of "legal warfare."

"The DPP authorities are overreacting," Li said, "The mainland is adjusting civil aviation routes, which is a technical issue, not a political or military one."

The DPP authorities' subjective surmise is probably based on its guilty conscience, fearing that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will come over at any time, Li said. 

When the airspace over the Taiwan Straits is cleared of all civil aviation, that is the time when secessionists should be really afraid of, Li said. 

The adjustment should not be viewed as mainland countermeasures after secessionist Lai Ching-te won the 2024 Taiwan regional election, Ni said. "The DPP only considers its own political interests and does not care about the needs of Taiwan compatriots and international tourists at all," he remarked.

"This route is a peaceful route and the more international and cross-Straits flights use it, the lower the risks in the Taiwan Straits," Ni said. He believes that personnel exchanges cross the Taiwan Straits are a security guarantee. 

However, the DPP is attempting to disconnect the two sides of the Straits, so that there will be no cross-Straits exchanges, no interaction and no cooperation, which is completely contrary to the majority public opinion of Taiwan people, Ni said. 

This is not the first time in January that the DPP authorities have deceived and scared Taiwan people by hyping up "mainland threats." 

Less than one week before the Taiwan regional election, the DPP authorities launched a mistaken air raid alert with the word "missile" after a mainland satellite flew over the southern part of the island. The DPP also hyped the mainland's meteorological balloons flying near the island as an act of "cognitive warfare."

The DPP authorities are trying to create cross-Straits tensions, create fear and hostility among the Taiwan people toward the mainland, create a public opinion base for the road to Taiwan secession, and at the same time portray an image of themselves as not being afraid of the mainland's pressure, Li Fei, a professor at the Taiwan Research Center at Xiamen University, told the Global Times on Wednesday.