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China says plenty of space separates Taiwan flights amid route row

BEIJING (Reuters) - China rebuffed Taiwan’s objections in a deepening row over the opening of new flight paths in the Taiwan Strait, saying on Wednesday that the space separating routes over the waterway was more than is mandated by international standards.

FILE PHOTO: China Eastern Airlines planes are seen on the tarmac at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, July 29, 2014. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

This month China opened several new air routes, including a northbound route up the sensitive Taiwan Strait that divides China from the island. Taiwan says it was done without its agreement, contravening what the democratic government in Taipei has said was a 2015 deal to first discuss such flight paths.

In response, self-governed Taiwan has withheld approval of routine applications from China Eastern 600115.SS0670.HK and Xiamen Airlines, majority owned by China Southern Airlines 600029.SS1055.HK, to add Lunar New Year flights because the airlines had used the disputed air routes.

Taiwan has expressed concern the new routes are too close to existing routes that link it to airports on two groups of Taiwan-controlled islands lying close to China - Kinmen which sits opposite to the Chinese city of Xiamen and the Matsu archipelago near to Fuzhou.

Multiple daily flights connect the islands to mainland Taiwan, while Xiamen and Fuzhou are also busy airports.

Speaking at a regular news briefing, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said there was at least 23 km (14 miles) separating the routes.

“This type of separation far exceeds lateral separation standards in the rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization,” Ma said. “So it can be said that the connecting routes are safe.”

Kinmen and Matsu have both been under Taiwan’s control since defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

Frequently shelled by the Chinese during the height of the Cold War, both are now popular tourist destinations and connected to China by ferry.

Kinmen’s airport is the busiest, with regular though less frequent flights to Matsu’s two airports from Taiwan.

Despite the spat, air traffic controllers from both China and Taiwan continue to communicate and coordinate as normal, Wang Zhiqing, a deputy head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China told a separate briefing.

“Yesterday I met a relevant official from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and he said the M503 route has been assessed and approved of by them, it’s safe and reliable,” Wang said, referring to the main disputed route.

The ICAO did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment

A spokesman for airline lobby International Air Transport Association (IATA) said in an email to Reuters that it welcomed initiatives to improve the safety and efficiency of flight operations, including M503 and the new routes.

It added that the safety of aircraft using M503 was of “utmost importance,” saying that operational coordination between the flight operation regions needed to be addressed and resolved.

“The routes could enlarge the airspace capacity in the region, alleviate the air traffic congestion, improve the punctuality for the surrounding airports and serve as a bypass when surrounding air routes are closed for various reasons.”

China considers Taiwan a wayward province, and relations have cooled dramatically since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took office as Taiwan’s president in 2016.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional Reporting by Dominique Patton in BEIJING and Brenda Goh in SHANGHAI; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore