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.