Taiwan takes back seat in row over mainland air zone

Ma Ying-jeou fears tough words with Beijing will reverse slow, hard-won progress made in cross-straits relations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 4:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 5:28am

Beijing's demarcation of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that covers the disputed Diaoyu Islands has left Taiwan in an awkward position.

The mainland's unilateral move has triggered strong protests from neighbouring countries. But other than expressing concern over the new zone, it seems there's not much the government of President Ma Ying-jeou is willing to do to deal with the situation.

The Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands have been claimed by Japan, Taiwan and the mainland. The new ADIZ also partly overlaps with part of South Korea and Taiwan's equivalent air space.

Beijing has threatened the use of force if aircraft pass through its zone without prior notice, prompting angry protests by South Korea, Japan and their ally, the United States.

Washington has flown two B-52 bombers through the zone, while Seoul carried out a similar move deploying a maritime surveillance plane in the area. Japan simply announced it would expand its air defence identification zone.

But, to the surprise of some on the island, Taiwan has complied with the mainland's demands by providing flight plans to Beijing before flying over the new zone.

Taiwanese transport minister Yeh Kuang-shih said late last month the decision was made because of safety concerns and followed the regulations of the international civil aviation authorities, which call for commercial flights to first advise their flight plans before passing through such flight zones.

The decision infuriated pro-independence groups in Taiwan, with the chairman of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Su Tseng-chang, accusing the Ma government of being soft and passive in countering the mainland's move.

The chairman of minor opposition party the Taiwan Solidarity Union, Huang Kun-huei, even petitioned the high prosecutor's office, accusing Ma of compromising national security through his alleged inaction over Beijing's initiative.

"The lack of response to [mainland] China's ADIZ by the Ma government indicates a lack of loyalty on Ma's part towards our country," Huang said.

Taiwan might be expected to react strongly, if not as violently as Japan and South Korea, over Beijing's unilateral claim of the right to govern airspace over a region that covers the interests of Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul.

But warming cross-strait relations - built through hard-fought efforts by Ma since he became president in 2008 and adopted a policy of engaging Beijing - have made his government ponder whether taking drastic action could hamper the further peaceful development of cross-strait ties.

Initially, Ma did not deem the move a sensitive territorial issue, saying it had no impact on Taiwan's sovereignty and would not impair the ability of Taiwanese forces to conduct air drills.

Taiwanese defence minister Yen Ming also confirmed on Monday the mainland's new air zone has not affected Taiwanese air patrols. He said the island's air force had made about 30 flights through the zone.

The response of the Ma government has clearly shown the Taiwanese authorities have tried to play a careful hand while sandwiched between the powerful interests of the mainland and the United States.

But it is getting more and more difficult for Taiwan to avoid taking a more vocal stance, given that Washington and Beijing are fighting for their core interests and security in the East and South China seas.

Sooner or later Taiwan will face greater pressure to choose between Washington and Beijing and it might be difficult for Ma to continue to tout his so-called East China Sea peace initiative, calling for the shelving of territorial disputes and self-restraint from all parties in the region.