Taiwan said on Wednesday it had successfully urged China to drastically narrow its plan to close air space north of the island, averting wider travel disruption in a period of high tension in the region due to China’s military exercises.
China has not commented on the no-fly zone but South Korea, which was also briefed on the plans, said the decision was taken due to an object falling from a satellite launch vehicle.
Beijing initially notified Taipei it would impose a no-fly zone from April 16-18, but Taiwan’s transport ministry said this was later reduced to a period of just 27 minutes on Sunday morning after it protested.
The ministry published a map showing what it labelled China’s “aerospace activity zone” to the northeast of Taiwan and near a group of disputed islets call Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan.
That would be close to civilian aviation routes between Taiwan and China as well as between Taiwan and South Korea, among others.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing a government source, said China’s no-fly zone included what Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone around the Senkakus.
The development follows days of intense military drills that China has staged around Taiwan in response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California last week.
Beijing said the drills – in which it practised blockading the self-ruled island that it claims as its own – were “a serious warning against the collusion and provocation of Taiwan independence separatist forces and external forces”.
It was against this backdrop that word of the air space closure stoked fears of travel disruption across the region.
When China imposed air space restrictions during military drills last August, there were significant disruptions to flights in the region, with some aircraft required to carry extra fuel, according to OPSGROUP, an aviation industry cooperative that advises on flight risks.
A senior Taiwan official familiar with China’s no-fly move told Reuters that given the potential disruption, Taipei had used “multiple channels” including diplomacy, intelligence and aviation authorities to persuade Beijing to rein in its original plan.
The official said Taiwan had informed all parties that would be impacted by the Chinese request, including some Group of Seven (G7) countries whose foreign ministers are set to travel to Japan for a meeting from April 16-18.
“Everyone found that to be unbelievable,” the official said.
Yan Yu-hsien, deputy chief of the general staff for intelligence at Taiwan’s defence ministry, said the no-fly zone would fall within the country’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), about 85 nautical miles north of its shores.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said he was unaware of the situation when asked at a regular daily press conference on Wednesday.
China said on Wednesday that Tsai was pushing Taiwan to “stormy seas” after she met with McCarthy during an overseas trip which also included stops in Guatemala and Belize.
The trip infuriated Beijing, prompting days of military drills designed to show it could forcefully take control of the democratic island.
“Tsai Ing-wen brought danger to Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen almost completely sided (with) the United States, pushing Taiwan into stormy seas,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) spokesperson Zhu Fenglian said.
China views Tsai as a separatist and has rebuffed repeated calls from her for talks. Tsai says she wants peace but that her government will defend Taiwan if it is attacked.
Beijing has continued military activities around Taiwan, despite announcing that three days of drills had ended as scheduled on Monday.
Taiwan said earlier on Wednesday that in the previous 24 hours it had detected 35 Chinese military aircraft and eight navy vessels around Taiwan.
Of those aircraft, 14 had crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, according to a ministry-provided map; the line normally serves as an unofficial barrier between the two sides.
China says it does not recognise the existence of the line.
Tsai, who returned to Taiwan a day before the drills began, appeared relaxed as she met Canadian lawmakers on Wednesday, saying her overseas trip had been a success in winning support against an aggressor that was threatening the island’s freedom.
“Through this trip we again sent a message to the international community that Taiwan is determined to safeguard freedom and democracy, which won acknowledgment and support from our democratic partners,” Tsai said as she met the lawmakers.
“Faced with continued authoritarian expansionism it is even more critical for democracies to actively unite,” she added.