Longing for the sky

Taiwan is renewing its bid to be part of global aviation’s guiding body but, writes Duncan Bartlett, mainland China is asserting its dominance over Asia’s skies

For millennia, humans have looked enviously at the birds, longing for the gift of flight. To reach the treetops is an impressive achievement yet some creatures have far loftier aspirations.

Take bar-headed geese, the so-called astronauts of the bird world, which can soar to 26,000 feet above the ground. They fly high over the Himalayas, migrating from India to the Tibetan highlands in China and Mongolia.

Birds care nothing for the politics of the lands below although human aviators are much more constrained. Airline pilots must arrange routes which fit with the Earth’s natural jet streams and they also face many man-made restrictions, some of which are complex and political.

Taiwan tension

In Asia, for example, the jets which travel daily between Taiwan and Europe are forbidden from flying over mainland China. This is because the People’s Republic regards self-ruled Taiwan as part of its own territory, not a state in its own right. Airspace restrictions are one of the many ways mainland China applies diplomatic and economic pressure on its rival.

Last year, Beijing ordered international airlines to stop listing Taiwan as a country on their websites and instead refer to it as ‘Taiwan, Province of China’ or ‘China, Taiwan region’. The People’s Republic also wants all international airlines, including those from Europe and the United States, to display Taiwan on their maps in the same colour as the one used for mainland China.

Diplomatic appeal

Another source of frustration for Taiwan is its exclusion from UN agencies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and will hold its annual session in late September at its headquarters in Montreal.

Taiwan’s Minister of Transportation and Communication, Lin Chia-lung, is hoping to prise the door open so that a delegation can take part in the discussions.‘We call upon the global community to urge for Taiwan’s professional and constructive participation in the ICAO, which we believe would help it to realise its mission of connecting the world,’ he said.

He knows that open support is always difficult to achieve, as Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have dwindled to only 17 countries.

Yet Taiwan’s airspace is busy. Last year, its airports served nearly 70 million passengers, many of them from mainland China. There are also regular direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland, although these are often cancelled during typhoons or when political tension rises.

For example, air traffic is halted when the Chinese army holds military exercises in the East China Sea. These war games usually take place in the run-up to elections in Taiwan and are used as a sign of strength by the People’s Republic.

Taiwan’s government maintains that being involved with the ICAO will ensure the whole North Asian region is in line with the most up-to-date rules and regulations on air safety.

‘We believe allowing the participation of Taiwan would create a win-win situation for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region and would fit well with the ICAO’s goals of a seamless sky and having no country left behind,’ says Minister Lin.

Hong Kong protests

Elsewhere in Asia, tensions with China have recently had a huge impact on the Hong Kong-based airline, Cathay Pacific.

Its chairman John Slosar stepped down in September, just a few weeks after the departure of its CEO, Rupert Hogg. China’s aviation regulator insisted that Cathay Pacific should prevent its staff from taking part in the recent anti-government protests in Hong Hong, claiming that this could endanger airline safety. It even threatened to revoke the licence which allows Cathay Pacfic’s planes to fly over the mainland.

Last year, Taiwan’s airports served nearly 70 million passengers, many from mainland China

The protests also affected Cathay Pacific’s business, as swathes of demonstrators brought the city – and sometimes the airport – to a standstill.

Cathay is not the only major Asian company which has wound up on the wrong side of politics in Beijing. A series of luxury brands including Versace, Coach and Givenchy have recently apologised for selling t-shirts that appeared to identify Hong Kong and Taiwan as being separate from China.

Space race

China currently boasts many privatised aerospace companies and the government is particularly keen to encourage start-ups to support the space industry. Some ambitious firms such as Beijing-based LinkSpace are pioneering reusable rocket technology, bringing the heavens one step closer. China is also openly courting the American businessman Elon Musk, who runs his own private aerospace firm, SpaceX.

STORM CLOUDS: Tensions with China have impacted on Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific
STORM CLOUDS: Tensions with China have impacted on Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific

This has frustrated some nationalists, such as the commentator James Lowe, who claims that Musk’s actions are ‘a serious affront to America’.

‘The Chinese government views space as the next warfighting arena and is making great strides in its space programME, all in an attempt to outpace the United States. In the upcoming space race, America needs the very best technology to combat the Chinese threat,’ says Lowe.

Tricky balance

Elon Musk is known as a maverick, ever ready to thwart convention and no stranger to critical comments from all sides. But even he will recognise that trying to balance his business interests in both the US and China is a delicate task at the best of times, especially during the ongoing Sino-US trade dispute.

Recent events in Hong Kong have served as a reminder that the Chinese only offer the most favourable terms to business leaders who share their Sino-centric perspective on the world – and of the skies above.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Asia

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