Written by Chun-yi Lee.

The controversy surrounding the M503 air route started in January 2018. On January 4th, China announced the new northbound flights on the M503 route, which lies very close to the middle line of the cross-Strait air border. This is not a new route, as many commentators have already mentioned. The M503 route had initially been discussed in 2015, due to the fact that the then President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jou and his party the Kuomintang (KMT) were in power and seeking closer trade ties to the China.

With the two governments on talking terms, this air route was not controversial then because Beijing had agreed on deferring the route to avoid economic disruption.

This changed following the 2016 presidential election. President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has always been an unwelcome figure from the perspective of Beijing due to Tsai’s ambiguity over the 1992 Consensus. In retaliation towards Beijing’s measurement of M503, the Tsai government in Taiwan froze an application from two mainland airlines, China Eastern and Xiamen Air, to add 176 flights in February for the Lunar New Year, a shared holiday celebrated both on the mainland and Taiwan.

From an outsider’s perspective, these are not the actions of serious players. Instead it represents a tit for tat exchange between the Chinese and Taiwanese governments that damages the lives of those who rely on cross-Strait air travel in their daily lives.

The importance of M503

From the Taiwan Studies Program’s round table debate on 31st January 2018, I learned that air routes are formalised between two countries or two political entities (in the case of cross-Strait circumstances).

The air route however is an agreement, not a strict international treaty. It is a result of negotiation by two governments, from two governments and is not enforceable under international law. The Chinese government’s behavior to open the M503 route did not violate said international law. On the question of aviation regulations, these are ruled by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), an organ of the United Nations of which Taiwan is not a member. Indeed the first female Secretary General of the ICAO elected in 2015 Dr. Fang Liu, is of Chinese origin, having graduated from Wuhan University in China. Should we accept therefore that Taiwan’s voice cannot be heard because Taiwan is not a member of ICAO and because China has declared the cross-Strait aviation routes an ‘internal business’?

No, certainly not. Taiwan is a political entity and has her own aviation controls. Yau explains clearly in his recent published piece on Taiwan Sentinel how the dangerous lack of communication between the two belligerent governments could cause confusion, delays and even deadly accidents. Taiwan’s aviation control without knowing the latest  routes would find it impossible to direct flights and thus restrict the level of access the island has.

This scenario is similar to how Taiwan came to be rejected by the World Health Organization. The embarrassing experience of Taiwanese delegation been chased out from the World Health Assembly (WHA) in mid May 2017 was still a fresh memory. The exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO has in fact only added to the region’s instability. Without getting the right information of health and prevention of disease, Taiwan might become a high-risk area for contentious disease.

Only Taiwan’s problem?

As I mentioned above, Taiwan is not a no-man’s land, it is a crowded island of over 23 million people. Due to the growing connectivity of East Asia, what happens in Taiwan will have wider a domino effect on the region. The air route of M503 will not only affect Taiwan’s air traffic control but the wider air safety. The rejection of Taiwan entering the WHA concerns far beyond those people on the island, it created a yellow (if it is not red) warning on the global health system. I asked the senior editor of Taiwan Sentinel Michael Cole in the recent podcast What can Taiwan do? Michael responded to me that Taiwan must raise the awareness of the international community. I do think Taiwan has already tried all her efforts to call the international awareness, but the isolated condition of Taiwan, is still far to be ‘officially’ acknowledged by the international society.

When, can both sides governments cross the Strait to understand, many issues are related directly on people’s safety rather than political competition? When, can the international society acknowledge that rejection of Taiwan’s entry into ICAO and WHO is not an action of ‘political correctness’, but is a direct life danger to 23.55 million people of the island and millions more people within the region and even beyond?

Chun-Yi Lee is the director of Taiwan Studies Program and the Founding Editor of Taiwan Insight. She is an assistant professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. Image Credit: CC by BriYYZ/Flickr.



  1. This is a necessary and commendable plea. I completely agree. Presumably, every reasonable person would agree. Even governments would agree if they cared about the well-being of individual persons.

    Unfortunately, not every person is reasonable at all times, as we know from experience. And this is true for governments, too. And no government cares about the well-being of individual persons all the time. Otherwise there would be no wars.

    Even more unfortunate is that authoritarian governments tend to care not at all about the well-being of individual persons. That is especially true of governments headed by a single strongman.

    But most unfortunate is that even democratically elected governments tend to neglect the well-being of individual persons if it is opportune to their wish to hold on to power.

    So, with China heading towards rule by a new emperor or by a new Mao and with Taiwan led by a party that is torn between the wish to preserve the independence of the country and the need to withstand the pressures of its towering neighbour, the chances for reasonable and caring governance by these two governments are slim and those chances might diminish even more soon.

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