- - Thursday, July 24, 2014

Twelve of China’s busiest airports are experiencing massive flight delays and cancellations that will last until Aug. 15, due to airspace restrictions imposed as a result of a mysterious air force drill that authorities say was the official reason.

The severe flight delays and cancellations started Sunday, affecting key airports in the eastern and central Chinese metropolises of Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Hefei, Jinan, Wuxi, Ningbo, Qingdao, Lianyungang, Zhengzhou and Wuhan. On Monday alone, about 200 flights originating from Shanghai were abruptly canceled, with close to 110 delayed, some severely.

China already enjoys the dubious honor of being the country with worst flight on-time record, as reported by Inside China last August.

There was no official clarification about what type of military exercise required such draconian and prolonged airspace restrictions for commercial flights during the peak summer travel season. Nor was there any prior announcement about the specific scale of the restrictions each day.

If it is true that an air force drill is indeed the culprit for the unprecedented flight woes, it testifies to the extraordinary power of the Chinese military and the Chinese leadership’s shifted priority from an economy-focused national policy to a military/security-centered national agenda. The affected areas are regions where China’s primary industry and economic productions are located, and the willingness of the Chinese high command to placate the People’s Liberation Army demands at the expense of civil affairs and public transportation is telling.

The hubris reflected in this affair can also be discerned from the intrusiveness of the Chinese military into civil aviation. As reported by Inside China, China’s military has the exclusive control over 80 percent of China’s airspace. By comparison only about 15 percent of the U.S. airspace is for military use, often in remote and sparsely populated areas. Now the Chinese military is encroaching on airspace in such an intrusive way with swagger affecting the rest of the already limited airspace allotted for civil aviation.

One possible explanation may be that China is conducting a series of important missile defense tests from the densely populated urban areas of eastern and central China.

On Wednesday, in the midst of the airspace restriction period, China took a major step in military development by successfully testing a missile defense system known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, which was hailed by the Defense Ministry as “historic” because only the United States is currently developing such a GMD with the capability to shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile in the missile’s mid course, as opposed to the terminal phase interceptors like America’s Patriot PAC-3 system and Russia’s S-400 system that hit incoming missiles closer to their targets.

Since the airspace restriction for civil aviation is to last until mid-August, it is reasonable to expect more such military booms from China’s unfriendly skies.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Yu_miles.

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