China made a rare backtrack on Wednesday over plans to block some of the world’s busiest airspace near Taiwan for three days, causing confusion over Beijing’s priorities in handling its stand-off with Taipei and Washington.
The Chinese government had notified Taiwan and several other countries on Tuesday that it would impose the no-flight zone between April 16 and 18 in a location 85 nautical miles (157km) north of Taiwan to conduct “aerospace activities”, a phrase Taiwan’s defence ministry said might refer to a satellite launch.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Taipei said Beijing had shortened the duration of the airspace closure to just 27 minutes from 9.30am to 9.57am on Sunday after fierce protests from Taiwan.
“Closing this chunk of airspace for three full days is absolutely unprecedented,” said a senior Taiwanese government official.
China’s original plan was perceived as a sharp escalation of tensions, coming just after it completed three days of military manoeuvres around Taiwan aimed at punishing the country for its president Tsai Ing-wen meeting US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California last week.
The airspace in question “sits at a crucial location in east Asian air routes and is a main transport artery in the western Pacific,” Taiwan’s defence ministry said in a statement. “China’s attempt to restrict flights for as long as three days under the pretext of ‘aerospace activities’ is not only almost unheard of internationally but also has a severe impact on managing civil aviation and deals a blow to aviation rights and safety”.
Taiwan said Beijing amended the proposal for the airspace closure following objections from Taipei, including from its transport ministry, which said that Taiwan would “struggle to implement” such a no-flight zone.
The no-fly zone covers an area traversed by hundreds of flights a day connecting Japan and south-east Asia. US secretary of state Antony Blinken will need to travel through it on his way from Vietnam, which he is due to visit this weekend, to attend a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Nagano, Japan that starts on April 16.
Beijing is also planning to hold military exercises in the Beibu Gulf, waters close to its border with Vietnam.
The South Korean government said the planned closure was because of falling debris from a satellite launch vehicle.
Two people familiar with procedures for temporary air space closures owing to satellite launches said such stoppages extended for a few hours at most in the past, and other countries would typically avoid blocking airspace as busy as the main north-south connection into Japan.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary said China had notified them about the planned no-fly zone.
According to other officials and airline executives, Beijing informed Taiwan’s civil aviation authorities late on Tuesday that it would impose the no-fly zone and close waters in the zone.
Since the area sits in the Taipei Flight Information Region, the sector where Taipei is in charge of regulating civil aviation, the Taiwanese government must officially notify airlines of the closure.