While the public was venting its anger at striking China Airlines pilots earlier this month, an extraordinary incident was unfolding at another airline more than 800km away that has gone largely unnoticed in Taiwan.
Air New Zealand Flight NZ289 from Auckland to Shanghai was forced to turn back mid-flight after Chinese authorities informed the pilot that the airplane would not be granted permission to land in Shanghai.
There are conflicting views on the reason the airplane was forced to turn back. Some news reports have said that the airline’s operating permit for the Shanghai aviation route had expired, while other reports cited an administrative error by the airline, which meant that the aircraft registration filed with the Chinese authorities was different from the registration number of the aircraft.
These reasons are unconvincing. Air New Zealand’s operational efficiency is there for all to see: The airline has for many years been consistently rated as one of the world’s top 10 airlines and it was awarded second place in this year’s rankings.
Furthermore, operating an aviation route to China requires a large amount of forward planning. As such, it is difficult to imagine that the airline would fluff the paperwork or make such a basic administrative error.
Others have provided an alternative explanation: Air New Zealand’s Web Site is not able to incorporate Taiwan as a province of China, as it lists destinations only by city names. This means the airline has so far been able to avoid getting sucked into international disputes.
In contrast, Qantas Airways and Jetstar Airways in Australia adhere to Beijing’s “one China” principle by listing Taiwan as a province of China.
Given its previously forceful stance, it appears that Beijing is punishing foreign companies that have not amended Taiwan’s status on their Web sites.
The Air New Zealand incident therefore seems to be politically motivated mischief-making by Beijing. China’s leaders probably decided to give the airline a taste of what it can do, while also whipping up nationalist sentiment for its home audience and firing a shot across the bow to foreign companies that are not yet on board with the “one China” principle.
Beijing does not see any need to pussyfoot.
However, while the Chinese government is clearly annoyed with Air New Zealand’s approach toward Taiwan’s national status, there are probably other factors at play behind the scenes.
One reason that runs much deeper is a secret tug-of-war being fought between China and New Zealand.
Over the past few years, the New Zealand government has adopted an increasingly vigilant attitude against China. For instance, it last year cited national security concerns to ban domestic telecoms from using equipment made by Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies in their 5G mobile networks.
Additionally, a defense policy report published by the New Zealand government in July last year said that Chinese influence in the Pacific Ocean has damaged regional stability.
The report also implied that China’s island-building in the South China Sea has increased tensions and that New Zealand would be aligning itself closely with the US.
This has all added up, and so a planned trip to China early this year by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was canceled, and Beijing has postponed the China-New Zealand year of tourism.
In addition, the New Zealand government has been holding internal discussions about how to disrupt and defend against Chinese infiltration, given several high-profile cases of murky political donations and espionage.
New Zealand has joined the ranks of other countries, including Canada and Australia, which, while enjoying strong economic ties with China, are politically butting heads with Beijing, causing relations to sour.
The news reports on the Air New Zealand incident said that the aircraft in question was a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, registration code ZK-NZQ.
However, the airline had filed paperwork with the Chinese aviation authorities for another Dreamliner with a different registration code, ZK-NZH, so while the flight code was the same, the aircraft was not, which gave the authorities a reason to refuse permission to land.
Even though, on the face of it, the explanation appears to stand up, it can also be viewed as Beijing seizing upon and exploiting a mistake by the airline for its own political advantage.
After all, it was not the first time that aircraft ZK-NZQ had landed in Shanghai, which meant that if China’s aviation authorities had used safety concerns as a reason for refusing to grant a landing permission, they would have been accused of making a mountain out of a molehill.
In reality, amending a landing permit is not a complex task, but a matter of filling out additional paperwork. Instead, China chose to brush aside the rights of passengers to nitpick over a trifling detail.
Clearly, the real reason was to send a message to the New Zealand government: China has many different ways it can make life difficult for uncooperative nations.
Ardern has so far attempted to quash speculation of a political angle to the incident, saying that the fault lies with Air New Zealand and adding that the incident would not affect her country’s relationship with China.
She is clearly trying to play down suspicions by placing the blame on the airline.
As the New Zealand government is a majority shareholder in Air New Zealand, Ardern presumably views this as the path of least resistance.
However, the affair has heightened the New Zealand public’s awareness of Beijing’s underhanded tactics and cemented their impression of China as a rude and unreasonable country, and it paints a bleak picture for cooperation between the two countries.
Lucian Hsu is director of Lucio Consulting Group.
Translated by Edward Jones
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