Written by Russell Hsiao.
On January 4, the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that it was opening four flight routes that are close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait. This unilateral decision by the Chinese authorities reneges on an agreement that was reached between Beijing and Taipei in 2015 after a similar move by Beijing provoked a protest by the previous administration on Taiwan and the two sides agreed to hold prior-consultations over air routes for aviation safety. The most controversial of the new routes is northbound M-503 which intersects with three flight routes between Taipei-administered Kinmen and Matsu to Taiwan. The Tsai government has vehemently protested Beijing’s unilateral action and repeatedly called on it to honour the 2015 agreement—but its appeals have fallen on deaf ear in Beijing.
“Beijing is utilizing the technical mechanisms it controls through international organizations such as ICAO for its political objective: to demonstrate that the Taiwan Strait is the sole jurisdiction of the PRC and that the space around the Taiwan Strait are its “internal waters.”
Aviation Safety Concerns
Beijing claims that the new flight routes were necessary to alleviate pressure on busy routes over south-eastern China between Hong Kong and Shanghai. Despite Beijing’s assertion that the new flight routes would have no impact on aviation safety, it stands to reason that because of the addition of new flights along an existing route that already intersects with three routes across the Taiwan Strait between Kinmen and Matsu with Taiwan, the unilateral decision does implicate an aviation safety risk due to increased air-traffic, if the flight paths and frequency are not properly communicated. Contrary to Beijing’s vague claim that the flight path has been communicated, there is apparently no direct communication between the air traffic control of the Shanghai Flight Information Region (Shanghai FIR) and the Taipei Flight Information Region (Taipei FIR).
Chinese Airspace under Military Control
Air space in China is primarily controlled by the military. In that sense, civil aviation in the PRC context is a misnomer. According to a US Congressional study, nearly 80 percent of Chinese airspace is controlled by the military. Air traffic control is only nominally administered by the CAAC. The real authority for air traffic control resides in the State Air Traffic Control Commission (SATCC) and ultimately in the Central Military Commission (CMC). And for airspace as sensitive as those over the Taiwan Strait, the decision to open new flights over the route in the Taiwan Strait must receive the approval of the CMC.
While there does not appear to be an imminent military intent in the M-503 decision, any military decisions are ultimately geared towards political objectives. Beijing’s unilateral decision to open the new routes follows a cooling in cross-Strait relations and a significant uptick in Chinese military exercises encircling Taiwan since 2016. To be clear, there has been a significant increase in the number of military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) encircling Taiwan in 2016-17. According to the 2017 National Defence Report released by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence (MND) in late December, between August 2016 and December 2017, the MND tracked at least 26 aerial exercises by the Chinese military around Taiwan. These actions are clearly directed at coercing Taipei into accepting Beijing’s terms for cross-Strait negotiation.
Pattern of Hybrid Warfare
Beijing’s decision to unilaterally open the northbound M-503 is also consistent with an increasing use of hybrid warfare. This type of warfare uses multiple instruments of power and influence, with an emphasis on non-military tools, to pursue its national interests outside its borders. Indeed, China stepped up its diplomatic offensive against Taiwan’s international space and it is also using it economic power as leverage to extract political concessions through the application of pressure on Taiwanese and also multinational businesses. In the case of M-503, it’s clear that the political signal was intended to express Beijing’s displeasure with the Tsai government for not explicitly agreeing to the so-called “1992 consensus” as the political basis for cross-Strait negotiation. As retribution, Beijing revoked the 2015 agreement to demonstrate its views that the areas covered by its actions are the sole jurisdiction of China, and unless Taipei agreed to its “One-China” principle then discussions on issues as a-political as aviation safety and crime fighting are off the table.
Just as the PLA has been normalizing military exercises around the surrounding areas where it has territorial disputes with other countries to demonstrate its sovereignty, Beijing is similarly utilizing multiple instruments of power and influence over the Taiwan Strait to manifest its “One-China” principle. Beijing is utilizing the technical mechanisms it controls through international organizations such as ICAO for its political objective: to demonstrate that the Taiwan Strait is the sole jurisdiction of the PRC and that the space around the Taiwan Strait are its “internal waters.” Such behaviours have implications beyond Taiwan. The long-term effect may be to use political-military means to effect, over time, a legal change in the “status quo.” The international community must carefully watch Beijing’s actions with M-503 and its hybrid warfare in the Taiwan Strait and beyond.