A matter of national security? The M503 route reconsidered

Written by Yang Shih-Yueh.

The M503 Route, a route for civil airlines transiting Taiwan Straits, is once again under the spotlight. When it was first proposed by the government from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2015, many Taiwanese took it as a great threat to Taiwan’s national security and air safety. At the time, when Ma Ying-jeou was still the President of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, he managed to convince the PRC government to adjust and partially defer the route. Only southward flights were allowed, and the issue was temporally solved.

Then, President Tsai Ying-Wen came to power in Taiwan; Cross-Strait relations at the governmental level froze because Tsai refused to accept the so-called “92 Consensus”, which implies that there is just one China that includes both the Mainland and Taiwan, but the two side of the strait differed on the meaning of China. The PRC government asserts that China is PRC while the ROC government asserts that China is ROC. Even though Tsai wants a rapprochement with the Mainland without the 92 Consensus, she got no positive response.

The M503 route “reappeared” under this background. The Mainland declared unilaterally on January 4, 2018, that the route is opened for northward fights. This move angered Tsai. In response, the extra flights from the Mainland for the coming Chinese New Year was rejected by Tsai government to “force” a negotiation, but this strategy was discarded by the Mainland. M503 still pressed on. Tsai government insisted that M503 route is an issue about national security and air safety that cannot be compromised. However, is that true?

The M503 is simply a “civil” route for airliners and actually has nothing to do with national security. With or without this route, PRC’s military aircraft can fly freely anyway under the most basic and well-established international law of the freedom above the high sea. The provisions of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) did not alter the nature of the high sea in this regard. For example, U.S. Navy’s EP-3 electronic reconnaissance planes need no specific civil air route to operate above the South China Sea. Tsai government ‘s protests against the M503 are as ridiculous and arrogant as the PRC government’s protests against the US in 2001 after its interceptor collided mid-air with the US plane.

What if the PRC planes with similar functions fly in the route, pretending that they are airliners? It makes no differences. Military radars will operate in different channels during peacetime since their electronic emissions will be gathered by planes fly elsewhere. Could it be possible that PRC’s striking aircraft mix into the air traffic in the route and launch surprise attacks on Taiwan? Unlikely. Airstrike formations are made of dozens of different types of aircraft like fighters, bombers, Jammers, and tankers. Their flying patterns are very different from airliners and can be identified without difficulty. If the PRC’s striking aircraft fly at regular intervals as civil flights, it would be an easy prey for Taiwanese air defence. Moreover, effective strike tactics require striking aircrafts to fly extremely low or high, below 100 meters or above 15,000 meters. In contrast, civil airliners fly at an altitude about 12,000 meters. In terms of national security, Taiwan should pay attention to cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and stealth aircraft, which provide little or no alert.

Regarding air safety, it is exaggeration to argue that M503 is a threat to aircraft in routes nearby. Given the intensity of civil aviation, numerous air routes intertwined around the world. In this respect, the M503 is a route for long-range flights, which is at least 3,000 meters higher than the three existing routes (W2, W6, W8) across the Taiwan Strait for short-range flights. The responsible international authority, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), has already confirmed and endorsed the safety of M503.

One could argue that the most intertwined air routes are located in the same Flight Information Region (FIR), but this is not the case either as M503 as well as the three other routes for short-range flights belong to Shanghai FIR and Taipei FIR respectively. If emergency occurres, such as a sudden loss of altitude (more than 3,000 meters!) caused by strong turbulence, there will be confusion and disorder as to which side should take charge. Yet, guidance from one side is enough. Aircraft in W2/W6/W8 can simply be directed by towers in Taipei FIR to avoid a falling airplane, if any, from M503. Might aircraft in W2/W6/ W8 also lose their control due to turbulence? Air traffic control actually cannot do anything to prevent a mid-air collision between two uncontrollable airplanes albeit they are in the same FIR.

Given the unrealistic nature of these arguments against the M503 route, hostile rationalization is the closest answer to them. No matter what the Mainland does, it will be interpreted by Tsai government and its core supporters as malicious. It is a Cold War mentality. Nevertheless, Cold War is over. This anachronistic mentality is a hazard to Cross-Strait relations. If Tsai really wants to negotiate with the Mainland, 92 Consensus is the magic word. In fact, according to various polls, over 50% of Taiwanese people support 92 Consensus. Many of them also voted Tsai. Afterall, most Taiwanese are ethnic Chinese. China is a historical and cultural concept and is not equal to PRC. Keeping this in mind and the current Cross-Strait deadlock can be overcome overnight.

Shih-yueh Yang is a Professor in the Department of International and Business at Nanhua University, Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.

Categories: China, Cross-Strait, Security, TaiwanTags: , , , ,


  1. Henri Dutilleux

    There is some inconsistency in the argument.

    The author’s analysis states that the M503 route is not an issue about national security and air safety but rather ‘hostile rationalization’ towards the ‘Mainland … by [the] Tsai government and its core supporters’. However ‘in 2015, many Taiwanese took [the M503 route] as a great threat to Taiwan’s national security and air safety’ and the ‘Ma [government] … managed to convince the PRC government to adjust and partially defer the route’.

    Does this mean that Ma negotiated with the PRC in 2015 to alleviate a threat that was no threat at all just to placate the many Taiwanese who nevertheless voted his party out of power at the following general election and who seem to be core supporters of the Tsai government now? Does this make sense?

    And how about the ’92 Consensus’? Ma could negotiate away a threat that was no threat because he had accepted the ’92 Consensus’ and Tsai cannot do this because she refuses to accept it? So what?

    It appears to be unproductive to entwine an argument against M503 being a threat with an argument for the ’92 Consensus’.

    It is true, ‘China is a historical and cultural concept and is not equal to [the] PRC’. However the CCP seems to use this concept as the justification to govern all Chinese lands including Taiwan. It apparently uses the ’92 Consensus’ as legitimisation of that claim. So, why would the government of a country that is independent and sovereign for more than 60 years, play along with such a charade? Does anybody in Taiwan still harbour the hope to wrest the “homeland” from the CCP’s grip?


  2. Yang SY

    This does make sense. President Ma did want to placate those who nevertheless voted Tsai in 2016. It is actually a common practice in Ma’ entire 8 years. He tried so hard to satisfied those who do not support him than those who support him. This is the main reason for his defeat.

    M503 is indeed a non-issue. Taiwan needs to negotiate with the mainland for other issues.

    And finally, R.O.C. is an independent and sovereign for more than 100 years. It includes both the mainland and Taiwan. This is a part of 92 Consensus. The consensus is a creation from ROC side, not from PRC.


    • Henri Dutilleux

      On the one hand it appears to be an outlandish proposal to keep the ROC alive. On the other hand a friend from Beijing insists that China and Taiwan are one country but he does not care if Taiwan joins China or China joins Taiwan. And another friend from Xi’an, a professor of law, worries that the CCP might collapse suddenly and unexpectedly and she would loose her field of research and expertise overnight.

      So, let us imagine. The rule of the CCP is overthrown and the Republic of China, founded in 1911, is revived. Now we would have a ROC on the mainland competing with the ROC on Taiwan, that is controlled by an pro-independence party, for legitimacy to rule over all Chinese lands. How interesting would such a situation be?


  3. Yang SY

    ROC is always alive. “One ROC, two governments” is nothing new for ROC.
    The current status of ROC government in Taiwan is much better than ROC Guangzhou government in 1924. Tsai and DPP can be out of favor soon in Taiwan if they failed to narrow gap between the rich and the poor. There are also growing sentiments of ROC in the Mainland as CCP has transform itself from revolutionary ideology to Chinese nationalism.


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