China began 2018 with a breach of longstanding arrangements for aviation safety in the Taiwan Straits. On 4 January, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) unilaterally opened up northbound civil flights on flight path M503 and three connecting east–west extension routes, in violation of a mutual agreement negotiated in 2015 between the Taipei Airlines Association and the China Air Transport Association.
China has a right to declare flight routes on the west side of the “median line,” a boundary imposed by the United States in the 1950s to prevent conflict between China and Taiwan. Nonetheless, an increase in flight travel in the 180-kilometre wide strait is unsafe because it places civilian aircraft immediately adjacent to zones used by Taiwan’s air force. Because it is so close to the Taipei Flight Information Region, moreover, Taiwan’s civil aviation authorities should have been consulted in advance for the sake of regional security and public safety.
Ever since China’s 19th party congress, President Xi Jinping has taken advantage of the distractions of the North Korea missile crisis and a weakened America to advance his own expansionist agenda in the South and East China Seas. At the end of 2017, the Chinese Liberation Army Air Force conducted a series of high-profile exercises circumnavigating Taiwan. These exercises took Chinese bombers between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako, thus infringing upon Japanese territory.
Taiwan (as well as Japan and South Korea) had already peacefully acquiesced in 2013 when China unilaterally declared its new “East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone” over their territories. China’s gradual hemming-in of Taiwan’s air space makes it difficult for Taiwan’s air force to carry out the patrol and training activities needed to protect their country. Since China is the only country that threatens Taiwan, this is a dangerous breach of the status quo. The United States has encouraged the two sides to engage in constructive dialogue.
China is rapidly developing military capacity to threaten Taiwan and prevent the kind of foreign intervention that has preserved peace in the past. Defence specialists thus see these changes in aviation routes as part of a salami-slicing strategy that, through seemingly small and harmless moves, could ultimately make it difficult for Taiwan to defend itself.
Canada has a strong interest in promoting peace and aviation security in the region. There are 28 weekly flights connecting Taipei to Vancouver and Toronto, including daily non-stop flights on Air Canada. There are more than 200,000 visitors annually between the two countries, which share an agreement on visa-free travel. Some 60,000 Canadians live in Taiwan. Business travel is important because Taiwan is Canada’s 5th largest trading partner in Asia and 11th in the world. Taiwan is a democratic country and shares common values with Canada. Any Chinese unilateral change to the status quo is thus destabilizing in the region and threatens Canadian interests.
Canada has strong international clout in aviation, especially since Montreal is the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization. At the very least, Canada can discreetly encourage China to resume cross-straits dialogue without imposing impossible conditions that alter the status quo. If direct cross-straits negotiations are not possible, Canada may have to recognize that China and Taiwan have separate aviation administrations and propose that both sides attend future ICAO meetings. In our age of accelerated global travel, aviation security needs to be ensured through dialogue with all stakeholders rather than by unilateral action. Canadian interests are thus best served by addressing this issue in support of Taiwan as quickly and as boldly as possible.
This article was first published on 10 January 2018 in the National Post.