There is a good chance that Tsai Ing-wen has read Immanuel Hsu’s brilliant tome, “The Rise of Modern China”, a book that describes China’s transformation from a traditional empire into the modern, technologically advanced, global power that it is today.
Taiwan’s president shouldn’t mess with Beijing. It isn’t good for her and especially for the 23 or so million people on that island just 180km off the southeastern coast of mainland China.
Since Tsai took office in May 2016 relations between Beijing and Taipei have soured. That’s because Tsai refused to acquiesce to Beijing’s demand that Taiwan accept the “1992 Consensus” and along with it, the “One China” principle.
This past week it has gotten worse after two Chinese carriers cancelled almost 200 flights to Taiwan. With the Lunar New Year fast approaching (Feb. 16-17), expect to see a lot of cross-strait air travel chaos as we approach the Year of the Dog.
On Jan. 4 Beijing announced the opening of four new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait. The new paths comprise of one northbound route (M503) and three east-west extension routes. This is one Taiwan’s newspaper take on it.
Tsai and her government protested Beijing’s decision, saying it violated a 2015 accord and could cause passenger safety issues. Taipei also interpreted China’s move as undermining the island’s sovereignty.
What Taiwan did next was to refuse to approve new flights by China Eastern and Xiamen Air. Both airlines therefore had little choice but to cancel almost 180 flights during the upcoming holidays. This mainly affects the 50,000 Taiwanese living on the mainland. Taiwan says it will deploy military planes to ferry its people home but there’s a snag: the planes can only transport less than a thousand people a day.
Amidst the escalating tensions, Taiwan on Jan. 30 staged live firing exercises to simulate fending off an invasion. Not a very well thought out move.
Will Beijing compromise? Unlikely. Although both sides agreed in 2015 that before China were to open new routes, it needs to consult Taiwan, that’s not going to happen under President Tsai’s reign. That’s because her party – the Democratic Progress party – has a negative stance towards the mainland, with a more pro-independence posture for the island.
The danger in this altercation in the realm of commercial aviation is clear: if Taiwan isn’t involved in the opening of new routes, there are higher risks from miscommunication and thus, harmful to airline safety.
It is estimated some 60 million passengers pass through Taiwan’s Flight Information Region (FIR). President Tsai has made Taiwan’s opposition to China’s unilateral move known to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). ICAO is a member of the United Nations. Taiwan is neither a member of the UN nor the ICAO. To make matters a bit more complex, the secretary general of the ICAO is a Chinese national.
Any future negotiations between Beijing and Taipei are fraught with difficulties because China doesn’t see Taiwan as an equal. President’s Tsai’s defiance of China will need to be tempered by the realisation that: (i) China isn’t going to give up on its One China, reunification policy (similar to Hong Kong and Macau) and (ii) Taiwan’s economy is becoming more and more dependent on the mainland.