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Inside China: No airspace for holiday travel

- - Thursday, January 31, 2013

The largest annual human migration occurs in China during the busy travel season around the Chinese New Year.

More than 1 billion Chinese passengers will jam China's highways, railways and airlines in the weeks before and after Feb. 10, New Year's Day. Travelers will visit their ancestral homes to celebrate the "Year of the Snake" and then go back to work.

Though more expensive, flying has become an increasingly popular means of travel for many Chinese. As a result, all of China's airlines are facing a severe shortage of seats during the biggest holiday of the year.

Compounding the problem is the limited number of air routes the government allows civil aviation. Many zones in China's skies are reserved for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force.

It was welcome news for millions of eager passengers when Chinese Central TV, one of the most authoritative voices of the Chinese communist government, announced Jan. 27 that the air force flight-control administration had decided to temporarily open 122 military air routes to civil aviation during the Chinese New Year heavy travel season.

The announcement also stated that, in order to make this happen, all air force routine training flights would be canceled so the estimated 20,000 passenger flights during the holiday period could use the expanded air space to carry passengers home and back.

But that announcement apparently touched some sensitive nerves inside the military's high command, because it would imply a lax level of air-defense vigilance if all routine training flights were canceled.

On Monday, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that "relevant authorities" of the air force denied it had ever agreed to open the restricted airspace.

"The PLA Air Force resolutely serves the strategic consideration of the Chinese Communist Party and our state," the Xinhua reversal stated. "The PLA Air Force wholeheartedly serves the people and conducts flight training with utmost rigor and seriousness in order to unswervingly safeguard the airspace of our motherland."

The unusual public on-again, off-again statements are an indication that heads likely will roll somewhere in the air force as a result of the faux pas.

Taiwan's awkward position

Japan's claim over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea faces a sovereignty challenge from Taiwan, as well as from mainland China.

In fact, when the United States returned the islands to Japanese administration in 1972, the U.S. government was walking a diplomatic tightrope between Japan and Taiwan, not necessarily between Tokyo and Beijing.

Therefore, for Taiwan to stress its claim over the Senkakus, which are called Diaoyutai in Taiwan, has a twofold diplomatic importance: It is an effort to bring back the 1972 status quo, when Taiwan was still officially and diplomatically recognized by the United States and most nations in the world as the only legitimate government of all China.

Taiwan's claim is also a delicate way of expressing the steadfast position of President Ma Ying-jeou in establishing a closer relationship with China to prevent a resumption of China's military threats as seen in the mid-1990s.

To do this requires political and diplomatic aplomb on Taiwan's part, because, if overplayed, China might get into a separate spat with Taiwan, as both governments claim the islands.

If not done right, Taiwan's voice as a de facto independent state may sound anemic and push the democratic island nation into further international insignificance and irrelevance.

That could embolden China to take more aggressive actions to persuade the Taiwanese that Beijing, not Taipei, has the Chinese nationalist stamina to punish Japan.

No matter what Taiwan does in the dispute with Japan over the islands, one consequence is inevitable: China will continue its never-ending attempt to consolidate Taiwan into one political entity by setting Japan up as the common enemy.

Last week, Taiwan dispatched a civilian vessel carrying anti-Japanese protesters from Taiwan and Hong Kong to the islands in open defiance of Japan. The Taiwanese government also sent a flotilla of four coast guard ships to escort the lone protest vessel.

The Japanese fired water cannons at the Taiwanese protest ship after it ignored repeated warnings to change course. The Taiwanese ship finally returned to port.

Meanwhile, three Chinese maritime surveillance ships tried to form a joint patrol formation with the four Taiwanese escorting vessels.

The Taiwanese ships were put in the awkward position of deciding which maneuver to make to prevent a clear naval alliance between China and Taiwan in a "united front" against the Japanese.

In the end, the Taiwanese ships were deliberately nonresponsive to Chinese ships' invitation for a joint formation, but nevertheless remained in the same area of water in a brief joint standoff with the Japanese vessels.

• Miles Yu's column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @yu_miles.