Escalating Tension Over Taiwan Strait Airspace May Hinder Travel for Lunar New Year
The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday season for many Asian cultures. Tradition dictates that children return to their parents' homes, wives be allowed to visit their families of origin, and extended relatives gather together to ring in the new year across generations.
But this year, an escalating dispute over airspace in the Taiwan Strait may leave many thousands of Taiwanese expats based in China unable to make the important pilgrimage home.
On January 19, Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration announced that it was denying Chinese carriers Xiamen Air and China Eastern Airlines permission to fly new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait because the routes were not previously discussed with the Taiwan government. The action was perceived by Taiwan as yet another sign of disrespect for the tenuous relationship between the two countries, as the new passenger routes skirt the borders of Taiwanese military and civilian airspace. Plus, this is a particularly sensitive time with Chinese military drills increasingly encroaching on the boundaries of Taiwan's airspace.
In response on January 30, Xiamen Air and China Eastern Airlines announced the cancellation of 176 flights that had been added to meet holiday demand, potentially stranding Taiwanese expats in China who hope to return home to their families.
The same day that the flights were canceled, Taiwan’s armed forces conducted their annual live-fire military drills. Attack aircraft, helicopters, F-16s and other aircraft and tanks worked together in a simulation on Taiwan's east coast, showcasing the nation's readiness in the event of an invasion.
Taiwan's presidential office also released a statement regarding the airspace dispute on the same day, stating that the safety of everyone flying across the strait was “a responsibility that cannot be abandoned.” Taiwan's statement referenced a consensus between the two countries in 2015, urging the Chinese government to focus on their joint commitment to “regional stability, cross-strait relations and flight safety.”
Despite increasing tensions, China and Taiwan's politics and business are closely interwoven. The People's Republic of China, founded in Beijing in 1949, has never forcibly acted upon its claim of Taiwan as a territory. Taiwan, in contrast, considers itself an distinct and independent government — a claim that also doesn't sit well with the government in Beijing.
In the 1980s, Taiwanese businesses began branching out into China for manufacturing and other work opportunities under the shadow of political tension. However, cross-strait travel had to detour through non-direct destinations such as Hong Kong, Macau and Okinawa before China and Taiwan negotiated direct commercial flights in 2008.Today, close to one million Taiwanese expats live and work in China in a complicated economic balance. Many are employed by Taiwan-based companies with large-scale operations in various Chinese cities, especially Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Many of these companies employ a large number of Chinese workers as well, such as Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, with more than 1 million Chinese employees across 12 factories in nine cities.
“This move has harmed the shared rights and interests of our company and customers,” said China Eastern Airlines, which canceled 106 round-trip tickets for nearly 40,000 passengers.
Xiamen Air said the move had “seriously hurt the feelings of people on both sides of the strait," as reported by the New York Times.
Both airlines stand to face significant financial losses from the decision.