M503 Flight Route: Model for Cross-Strait Dispute Resolution
China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 9, 2015
Executive Summary: The long dispute over the M503 flight route has finally been resolved. Neither side is completely happy with the result, but both sides find it acceptable, or at least tolerable. This shows that as long as the two sides remain rational and pragmatic, and are willing to communicate with each other, they can reach an understanding, enhance mutual trust, and settle their differences. In fact, there are no insoluble cross-Strait problems. Such mutually beneficial cooperation deserves recognition and encouragement. It proves that “where there is a will, there is a way”.
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The long dispute over the M503 flight route has finally been resolved. Neither side is completely happy with the result, but both sides find it acceptable, or at least tolerable. This shows that as long as the two sides remain rational and pragmatic, and are willing to communicate with each other, they can reach an understanding, enhance mutual trust, and settle their differences. In fact, there are no insoluble cross-Strait problems. Such mutually beneficial cooperation deserves recognition and encouragement. It proves that “where there is a will, there is a way”.
During this year's Spring Festival, Wang Yu-chi, former chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, and Zhang Zhijun, director of the Mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office, were supposed to meet for the third time in Kinmen. But the Mainland side unilaterally announced the establishment of Flight Route M503, near the midline of the Taiwan Strait. This provoked public criticism on Taiwan. Taipei felt it had been disrespected. National security was also a concern. As a result, our side postponed the high profile Wang Zhang meeting, which had attracted considerable public attention. Now that the furor has died down, the two sides must seize the opportunity to resume high-level official dialogue.
The M503 flight route controversy includes several facets. One. Position and attitude. Two. Process. Three. Practical consequences. As we all know, the two sides of the Strait are diametrically opposed on many matters. They differ in their positions. They differ in their methods. They differ in their substance. The former differences are primarily symbolic in nature. The latter involve real world consequences.
For example, Beijing refers to the cross-Strait meetings as the Zhang Wang meeting and the Wang Koo meeting. Taipei refers to them as the Wang Zhang meeting and the Koo Wang meeting. Beijing talks about a one China framework, Taipei talks about a one China architecture. Such differences in word order and terminology represent different political stances, laden with symbolic differences that both sides consider important.
The latter differences involve trade-offs between political and economic interests. Examples include cross-Strait air traffic rights negotiations, the content of the ECFA early harvest list, the ARATS and the SEF offices, and personal safety for Taiwan compatriots. Significant economic and even political interests are involved. As a result, both sides are extremely cautious. They cross every t and dot every i to protect their political and economic bottom lines, and avoid harming their political and economic interests. They take care to avoid broader repercussions that might cause unnecessary problems or unwanted associations down the line.
Take the Mainland's unilaterally drawn and announced M503 flight route. Ignore for the moment whether it would have much impact on Taiwan's security. Consider only the Mainland's position and attitude. ROC government agencies, including the National Security Council, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Transportation must first express clear opposition. Such expressions may not have much practical effect. Nevertheless they are necessary to clarify our bottom line and prepare our response. Adhering to our bottom line requires adhering to our position and answering to public opinion. It also requires negotiating in the best interests of the nation. Anything less amounts to a dereliction of duty.
According to media reports, the flight route issue was indeed the subject of repeated advance exchanges. But the two sides failed to reach an agreement. No consensus was reached. Yet Beijing unilaterally announced the establishment of the flight route. Taipei expressed its dissatisfaction and concerns. Understandably, it found this difficult to accept. Once Taipei expressed its objections however, Beijing did not dig in its heels. Instead, it urged Taiwan's media to visit Taiwan's air traffic control agency and witness for itself existing airspace congestion. Beijing agreed to delay implementation. It took the initiative to shift the flight route 6 nautical miles to the west of the midline, as a gesture of goodwill. Although Taipei expressed dissatisfaction, it accepted it. The two sides reconsidered their positions. They each took a step back. Their approach deserves affirmation.
Now take the matter of practical consequences, of military considerations, especially those of the Air Force. The M503 flight route over the midline of the Taiwan Strait understandably raises military concerns and provokes psychological insecurities. But Beijing submitted the case to the ICAO in advance. The international community expressed little opposition. Taipei represents a peaceful nation in the East Asian region. If the M503 flight route poses national security concerns, we should respond by enhancing our early warning capabilities, rather than by insisting on own one-sided interests.
As far as position and attitude are concerned, Taipei must of course express opposition. But as far as practical consequences are concerned, assuming the flight route does not pose a danger, a compromise would be timely and appropriate. Beijing was motivated by practical concerns. It wanted the M503 flight route. It followed applicable procedures. It notified international organizations. Once it understood Taipei's concerns, it modified its position appropriately. This led to a win-win outcome. We hope the two sides will maintain such attitudes and practices in the future. Bilateral relations can be improved. We hope future disputes will be settled through rational communications. This will benefit all the people.