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China opens new coastal air routes, drawing Taiwan protest

[TAIPEI] China announced new commercial flight routes along its southeastern coast today, as Taiwan warned the move created safety risks and threatened to "evict" any planes that strayed into its airspace.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office called on Taiwan to show "more understanding and less suspicion" toward the opening of four flight routes along China's southeastern coast that aim to ease congestion on routes between Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta, spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said today in Beijing.

China's declaration - which officials in Taipei said was made unilaterally - risks escalating tensions with Taiwan, an island China claims as its territory. The country is flexing its military muscle in a region dominated for decades by the US and still aims more than 1,200 missiles across the Taiwan Strait after more than 60 years of separate rule.

"Observers in Taipei have long cautioned that seemingly more incremental, coercive measures undertaken by Beijing in the vicinity of Taiwan could serve as a means of discreetly laying the groundwork for future aggression," Iskander Rehman, a Washington-based fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote in an e-mail.

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In November 2013, China declared an air defense identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea amid a territorial dispute with Japan. More recently, two Chinese military airplanes in August entered Taiwan air space after another Chinese fighter performed a barrel roll over a US Navy surveillance aircraft near China's Hainan island.

Monitor, Intercept Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense said yesterday it would step up surveillance of aviation activity near the median line of the Taiwan Strait in case of "unexpected situations" and pledged to monitor, intercept and escort out any intruders in accordance with the rules of engagement.

Three of the four new routes approved - the W121, W122 and W123 - run east-west and connect to the new north-south M503 route, which is west of the Taiwan Strait's center line. The closest that route M503 comes to the center line of the Taiwan Strait is 7.8 kilometers (4.8 miles), Taiwan's Central News Agency reported, citing the island's Civil Aeronautics Administration.

Route M503 is too close to the Taipei flight information region, the CAA said yesterday. The region covers airspace where Taiwan provides flight information and an alerting service. Routes W121, W122 and W123 could affect flights between Taiwan and the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu, the CAA said.

The island's transport ministry called the new routes "unacceptable" and said their operation would pose safety risks.

Route Approval Taiwan and China have held two rounds of discussions to date and the International Civil Aviation Organization, known as ICAO, approved the routes, according to Ma from China's Taiwan Affairs Office. The new flight paths can be used from March 5, Mr Ma said.

ICAO's offices in Montreal and Bangkok didn't reply to two e-mails asking whether the new routes had been approved and whether Taiwan's views were considered.

In September 2013, China agreed to Taiwan officials participating as guests at a two-week ICAO assembly for the first time since the island government lost its seat in the United Nations aviation agency in 1971.