On Monday, china agreed to delay the opening of its new M503 flight route, which was originally scheduled to take place on March 5. According to the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), if Beijing really does open the route for use, it would move the route 6 nautical miles (11.1km) farther west from the originally planned course, and it would not implement the other new routes — W121, W122 and W123 — which all intersect M503.
China’s tough stance has softened since President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government suddenly canceled the meeting between Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), which was scheduled to take place in Kinmen County on March 7. The cancelation made Beijing realize that the Ma administration was deeply unhappy about being forced to accept the new routes.
If China had insisted on launching the new route as scheduled, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the entire pan-green camp would inevitably have attacked the decision, and the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) would have criticized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with one voice. That would have had a significantly negative impact.
In particular, Beijing has been hoping that the KMT-CCP relationship — which has been deteriorating recently — would improve after New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) took over the KMT chairmanship. The opening of the M503 route would only make the situation worse. Beijing seems to believe that Chu is the only KMT politician able to compete with DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in next year’s presidential election. At a time when Chu has not decided whether to run for president next year, adding more variables to the cross-strait relationship might embarrass him.
Meanwhile, the Ma administration is turning the opening of the M503 route into a key issue, and a Wang-Zhang meeting is unlikely to take place if the problem persists. As a result, such “systematic interactions” that the two sides have worked so hard to build might break down.
In October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) proposal to former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) that the respective authorities in charge of cross-strait affairs could meet to exchange opinions led to the Wang-Zhang meetings. Beijing does not want such systematic interactions to break down. In other words, Xi might be the one who made the decision to delay the opening of the M503 route.
The Chinese military has always adopted a tough stance on the new route, and the TAO does not have a say in it. However, due to overall cross-strait development, the military has been forced to compromise.
From this perspective, it is still necessary for China to follow former Chinese president Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) policy of “placing its hope [of unification] on Taiwanese people.” Otherwise, for a democracy like Taiwan, a tough stance would merely separate the two sides further.
As the Chinese saying goes: “If you knew something bad would happen, then you should not have done it in the first place” (早知如此，何必當初). Practically speaking, China needs the M503 route, but it could have encouraged Taiwanese businesspeople investing in China to show support. Additionally, to assuage public doubt in Taiwan, Beijing could have informed the media that the routes had no military dimension.
Unfortunately, Beijing chose to go the other way. Although it is currently trying to remedy the problem, the issue has already made a bad impression on Taiwanese, who do not feel any goodwill from Beijing.
Fan Shih-ping is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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