On Friday, Beijing gave the go-ahead to four Taiwan airlines to fly over Chinese airspace. This move is significant not only from a historical perspective, as for first time in half a century Chinese airspace is being opened up to Taiwanese aircraft, but also in terms of future developments in cross-strait relations. It seems obvious that the Taiwan government is now more than ever losing its grip on the pace at which cross-strait relations is evolving, more specifically when it comes to the issue of cross-strait direct links.
With Beijing partially opening up its airspace to Taiwan airlines, how much longer can total direct links be put off? Unfortunately, so far, Taiwan seems ill prepared to deal with the effects of full direct links.
The four airlines that received approval from Beijing are China Airlines and its subsidiary Mandarin Airlines, as well as EVA Airways and its subsidiary Uni Airways. However, it is worth noting that Beijing actually did not approve all of the air routes for which applications were submitted. The applications submitted for flying over northern China to other foreign destinations including Frankfurt and Paris were uniformly rejected. On the other hand, had these applications been approved, these new routes would have brought the airline operators even more time and energy savings than on the routes approved. As a result, EVA Airways accepted an alternative route via southern China proposed by Beijing, while China Airlines expressed the hope of continued negotiations with Beijing. However, the hope of negotiations ultimately leading to approval of the route originally requested by the airline is slim.
The official reason cited by the Chinese aviation authorities was that the proposed routes were "over-crowded."
However, spectators believe that the real reason were much more sensitive: national security reasons. Frankly put, the routes over northern China proposed by the airline operators were too close to Beijing and possibly other militarily sensitive zones.
The thing is that China may be big enough for alternative routes to be used, circumventing the need to fly over "sensitive zones." The same cannot be said about Taiwan. Now that Beijing has agreed to partially open up its airspace to Taiwanese airlines, is the Taiwan government ready to say "no" when a request for reciprocity is made? In view of the size of the island, it would be hard to carve out routes that keep a safe distance from all the "sensitive zones" of Taiwan.
As accurately pointed out by many commentators, this move by Beijing is but another precursor to full-blown cross-strait direct links. Almost simultaneously, numerous other proposals and discussions related to similar "precursors" to direct links have been entertained. With the Mid-Autumn Festival coming up in only a few weeks, there are again talks regarding special chartered direct flights for the holiday. Then, there are proposals regarding the opening up of chartered commercial direct flights over weekends on a regular basis for businessmen shuttling between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as chartered direct flights for tourists. This is not to mention the proposal by the Executive Yuan to initiate talks related to commercial cargo and chartered passenger flights simultaneously.