China’s Sudden Flight Route Change Puts Taiwan Under Pressure

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China’s recent decision to alter flight paths in the Taiwan Strait has raised concerns about aviation safety, particularly around the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen and Matsu islands, Taiwan’s transportation minister announced Wednesday.

On Tuesday, China’s Civil Aviation Administration declared the modification of the north-to-south M503 route starting from February 1. Additionally, the administration plans to activate eastbound operations on the W122 and W123 connecting routes to the M503, aiming to enhance airspace operation efficiency .

Chen Binhua, spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, countered criticism from Taiwan, asserting that the M503 route is purely for civil aviation and dismissing concerns from Taiwan as “completely unwarranted.”

Chen emphasized that managing civil aviation airspace in the mainland is a routine activity, negating any need for consultation with Taiwan. He also justified the decision by stating that Taiwan is an integral part of China, hence no consultation is required for such internal matters.

The adjustments are purported to relieve congestion in Shanghai’s Flight Information Region (FIR) and enhance aviation safety. Chen further highlighted efforts to resume full cross-strait flights and urged the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan to lift restrictions on cross-strait air transport to satisfy travel demands.

“China’s recent adjustments to its flight paths in the Taiwan Strait could potentially affect aviation safety around the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen and Matsu islands,” Wang Kwo-tsai, Taiwan’s transportation minister, said Wednesday.

Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) voiced strong opposition to China’s unilateral route adjustments, particularly those near the strait’s median line. The CAA expressed deep regret and strong protest against the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s (CAAC) announcement, highlighting concerns about the southbound operation of the M503 route.

The US State Department has expressed concern about Beijing’s move to modify the flight route.

“Issues related to civil aviation and safety in the Taiwan Strait should be decided through dialogue between both sides,” the US spokesperson told CNA.

An FIR, or Flight Information Region, serves as a designated airspace where a country, or in specific cases, an individual city, manages air traffic, information, and alert services for aircraft during flight.

This critical coordination includes the dissemination of weather updates, the tracking of nearby aircraft positions, and the identification of potential flight hazards. The establishment of FIRs ensures that pilots have access to essential information required for safe navigation and contributes to the overall safety and efficiency of international and domestic air travel.

The modifications include relocating the M503 flight path closer to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, just 4.2 nautical miles away, after previously adjusting it 6 nautical miles to the west in 2015 following discussions with Taiwan.

The change allows for eastbound flights on the W122 and W123 routes, which had permitted westbound traffic since 2018. These routes lie in proximity to airports on the Matsu and Kinmen islands, respectively, raising aviation security concerns amid potential cross-strait communication issues.

Graphic showing the changes China has made to the M503 flight route, which will come into effect on February 1, 2024. China’s Sudden Flight Route Change Puts Taiwan Under Pressure.
Graphic showing the changes China has made to the M503 flight route, which will come into effect on February 1, 2024. China’s Sudden Flight Route Change Puts Taiwan Under Pressure.
X/Detresfa_

Experts and officials in Taiwan have expressed apprehensions about China’s intentions, suggesting that these adjustments could be part of broader efforts to assert sovereignty over airspace and waters around Taiwan.

Hsin Ping-lung, a researcher at Tamkang University, and Yu Hao-wei, a former Air Force officer, told Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS on Friday that the potential implications of these changes for Taiwan’s military intelligence and surveillance, although they noted the improbability of Chinese military aircraft using these routes for covert operations.

A Mandarin Airlines Airbus ATR-72 plane landed at Sung Shan Airport in Taipei on March 6, 2019. China’s Sudden Flight Route Change Puts Taiwan Under Pressure.
A Mandarin Airlines Airbus ATR-72 plane landed at Sung Shan Airport in Taipei on March 6, 2019. China’s Sudden Flight Route Change Puts Taiwan Under Pressure.
Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty

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