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Political ramifications of Beijing’s salami-slicing over Taiwan

Flying into Taipei from Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines at the end of the Lunar New Year festival is typically a routine affair. I had booked my flight back in December, but in early January, China Eastern canceled 212 additional flights between mainland China and Taiwan planned for the holiday period.

Xiamen Airlines canceled at least 70 of its additional flights, accusing Taiwan of being “heartless” for putting the travel plans of some 50,000 returning passengers and their holiday plans in jeopardy.

But what seemed to be an easy propaganda win for Beijing deserves further examination. The additional flights by the two mainland airlines included new routes that were unilaterally declared by Beijing.

Beijing’s launch of northbound flight route M503 was deemed by Taipei as posing a threat to its security, as the new routing passed close to a training area for the Taiwanese air force and some 8 kilometers from the line dividing the strait between Taiwan and the mainland, decreasing the amount of time during which Taiwan’s air force could respond to a future air attack.

Beijing also unilaterally announced three other east-west extension air routes, which Taipei objected to by refusing permission for China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Air to fly the extra cross-strait flights during the holiday period between February 15 and 20. Two of the air routes would pass close to the offshore islands of Matsu and Kinmen.

While the new routings were only slight changes to existing flight paths, they bring to mind Beijing’s “salami-slicing” technique used to improve its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Over the past few years, Beijing has constructed and militarized artificial islands, laying claim to surrounding waters (despite an international ruling against such actions).

So far, such slices are not considered sizable enough to fight over by the littoral nations and the great naval powers in the region. But in similar fashion, Beijing now appears to be slicing off small pieces of airspace incrementally – just enough to show Taipei it is serious about eventual reunification without sparking war.

Yet Beijing’s recent actions have sparked international condemnation. Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the launch of new flight paths without consultation with Taiwan was dangerous to air safety and an issue that required the international community to take action. J Michael Cole, a senior non-resident fellow with the China Policy Institute and the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham in England, added that the new flight plan “reneges on the conditions agreed upon between the two sides in 2015.”

While many returning Taiwanese did arrive safely, and my flight was delayed only 30 minutes, others were discouraged and did not get to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their relatives in Taiwan.

Given the latest machinations of Beijing, one wonders how the M503 incident will play out in the upcoming Taipei mayoral election in November. Will the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), which favors closer ties to the mainland, have gained sympathy and momentum over the incident, or will the Taiwanese cynically view the salami-slicing action by Beijing as another example of squeezing their sovereignty?

The efforts by Washington can be considered a counter-punch to Beijing’s efforts in recent months toward the eventual reunification of the island with mainland China

Wandering the hallways of the American Institute in Taiwan last week in search of a new passport, I was taken back by the outdated condition of the building. Given the modernity of Taiwan, I had expected a larger, grandiose complex, but only found a small building with few floors and cramped rooms. Only later that day did I discover plans to develop a new complex of modern, elegant buildings, scheduled to open in mid-June.

The new complex, coupled with efforts by the US Congress to promote visits to Taiwan by US warships and by civilian counterparts, will surely test Beijing’s patience.

The efforts by Washington can be considered a counter-punch to Beijing’s efforts in recent months toward the eventual reunification of the island with mainland China. Mainland tourists have been discouraged from visiting the island, and flights over Lunar New Year were disrupted by the unilateral change of flight routes by Beijing. Chinese strategic bombers, escorted by fighter jets, have been flying circles around the island in a show of force.

Last month, China adopted new civilian aircraft flight paths over the Taiwan Strait, near Taiwan-controlled islands, without consulting Taiwan’s government. Several months earlier, Beijing began dispatching military aircraft to circumnavigate Taiwan. In 2017, China sent its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait en route to missions in the South China Sea.

These actions have raised alarm in Taiwan. They have increased friction over security-related issues in a cross-strait relationship already strained by other developments initiated by Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan, including suspension of Taiwan’s participation in the annual World Health Assembly meeting, shifts in diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing by two remaining members of the small cohort of states with formal relations with Taiwan, and the extradition of Taiwanese criminal suspects to the mainland, rather than Taiwan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has ramped up the pressure toward Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was elected president two years ago. While in office, Tsai has attempted to present her party, which has a long history of favoring formal independence for Taiwan, as a more benign force.

To counter the moves by Beijing, pressure is building up in Washington to show more support for Taipei. Last week, a large delegation of US House and Senate committee members and staff, led by Senator James Inhofe, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, visited Taipei. The delegation met with Tsai and her senior ministers, and concurs with a bill passed in the House and pending in the Senate that would encourage senior US administration officials to visit the island.

“With China becoming more aggressive and intent on expanding its influence globally, the United States-Taiwan security relationship is now more important than ever,” Inhofe said. “By ensuring they have the ability to defend themselves, Taiwan will continue to be an important part of promoting regional stability.”

President Donald Trump signed separate legislation in December, bitterly opposed by Beijing, that included a provision encouraging mutual port calls by naval vessels from Taiwan and the United States.

Global Times, a nationalistic, Beijing-controlled newspaper, said last month, “If any US high-level official pays an official visit to Taiwan, Beijing will treat it as severe provocation and adopt all possible countermeasures, including uniting Taiwan by military force.”

President Xi has put more emphasis than his recent predecessors on China’s goal of eventual political unification of Taiwan with the mainland. During his 205-minute speech last October at the start of the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade National Congress, Xi received his loudest, most enthusiastic applause – particularly from army generals in uniform among the delegates – when he declared, “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”

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Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He is currently based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666

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