China may try to restrict Taiwan's air access to outlying islands: expert

10/17/2020 10:03 PM
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A UNI Air ATR-72 600 70-seat plane. CNA file photo
A UNI Air ATR-72 600 70-seat plane. CNA file photo

Taipei, Oct. 17 (CNA) A retired Taiwan Air Force general warned Saturday that an incident on Thursday, in which Hong Kong turned back a Taiwan military-chartered supply plane en route to the Dongsha Islands, may have been the first move in a broader campaign by China to restrict air access to Taiwan's outlying territories.

The relevant government agencies need to put in place a response plan, in the event that aircraft are not allowed to enter the Flight Information Regions (FIRs) en route to the Taiwan's Kinmen and Matsu islands, among others, retired Lieutenant General Chang Yen-ting (張延廷) said.

In a television interview on Saturday, Chang said Taiwan's national defense, foreign and interior ministries, along with its Straits Affairs Foundation and Mainland Affairs Council, must be prepared in case China begins using similar tactics against military flights.

Chang was commenting on an incident on Thursday, in which a civilian aircraft chartered by Taiwan's military was advised by Hong Kong air traffic controllers not to enter the airspace over a group of islands in the South China Sea because "dangerous activities" were in progress in the area, according to Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA).

The Dongsha Islands, administered by Taiwan but also claimed by China, are located about 310 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong and are within its Flight Information Region (FIR).

It has been standard practice for Taiwanese air traffic controllers to inform their Hong Kong counterparts whenever a plane in the Taipei FIR is about to enter the Hong Kong FIR and is about 20-30 nautical miles away.

Following Thursday's incident, the CAA faulted Hong Kong authorities for abruptly denying entry to the Taiwanese flight, rather than issuing a "Notice to Airmen" in advance regarding hazards along the route.

In his interview on Saturday, Chang said he was worried that China may also begin demanding notification about Taiwanese military flights, which could affect air access to Taiwan-administered Kinmen, Matsu and Taiping islands in the South China Sea.

In a worst-case scenario, if Taiwanese civilian or military flights ignored those demands, China could potentially scramble jets to intercept them, he said.

Such tactics would increase the pressure on Taiwan by "sealing it off" without requiring the use of force by China, he warned.

In Taiwan, the incident has been condemned as "Chinese interference" by the governing Democratic Progressive Party.

Meanwhile, Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), chairman of the opposition Kuomintang, said the incident was "serious and surprising," and he urged the defense ministry to handle it with caution.

UNI Air, which operated the chartered flight on Thursday, declined to say Saturday whether a planned flight to Dongsha Island on Oct. 22 would go ahead as scheduled.

(By Matt Yu, Wang Shu-fen and Matthew Mazzetta)

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