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A New Trojan Horse from China, Why It's Irresponsible to Outright Dangerous

Upping the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, China just moved its southbound military and civilian flight paths provocatively closer to its neighbors.



Chinese fighter jets have breached Taiwan airspace many times. This image was taken during an intentional breach in 2020 around the time of a memorial service for former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui.

The People's Republic of China announced on January 30 that it would move its southbound M503 flight path eastward, closer to Taiwan, effective February 1. This can only be perceived as yet another attempt to pressure Taiwan, especially its president-elect Lai Ching-te

That decision places the flight path just a few kilometers from the median line of the Taiwan Strait and the Taipei Flight Information Region (TFIR). It will negatively impact flight safety in the already tense skies above the Strait.

Numerous officials and agencies in Taiwan immediately and correctly criticized the move. Premier Chen Chien-Jen protested the decision. He argued that it went against the results of aviation negotiations in 2015 and would impact the safety of flights in the region. Transport minister Wang Kwo-tsai, similarly, pointed out that if the flights followed the M503 route exactly, they would be just 7.8 km away from the TFIR. Moreover, if weather conditions weren't good, the flights could easily veer onto Taiwan's side, causing its Air Force to respond.

And this is precisely the problem. 

Chen Binhua, spokesperson for the PRC State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, holds a press conference on January 31 in Beijing (©CNS via Kyodo)

China's Hostile Intent

The Taiwanese military is already overworked by intrusions of PRC military aircraft. There are daily reports of PRC air activities in the Strait and in many cases actual incursions. 

Recently as well, the PRC has used spy balloons near Taiwan for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering purposes. Like the PRC's activities near the Senkaku Islands in Japan, China is normalizing these and other actions that clearly have a long-term hostile intent. If not, why would the PRC do it?

But there is another, more dangerous, aspect to the sudden decision by the PRC Civil Aviation Administration. It is also canceling "offset measures" for southbound flights along the M503 route. And flight routes W122 and W123 are also connected to the M503 route. This is the Trojan Horse factor. China can and will disguise military aircraft as civilian planes that will participate in an eventual attack on Taiwan. 

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council picked up on this immediately. It criticized the move by stating that route changes were an attempt to use civil aviation for political and even military objectives. 

The Taiwan Ministry of National Defense released this image in August 2023 to show the movements of Chinese military aircraft deployed near Taiwan. (©Taiwan Ministry of National Defense via Kyodo)

Impacting Taiwan's Threat Response

It gets worse. Not only is flight safety impacted, but the route adjustments will reduce the depth and the time the Taiwanese military has to respond to emergencies. 

Former Air Force deputy commanding general, retired lieutenant general Chang Yen-ting has long warned of China's advances on Taiwan. In his view, Taiwan needs to beef up its patrols. He has warned that the PRC could disguise a military aircraft as a civilian plane and seize airports in Taiwan. Further, in a recent interview, he stated that the PRC is 

… pushing its airspace all the way to the median line, splitting Taiwan's airspace in two by the median line. In the future, they may use this space and harass Taiwan. It takes a warplane just 1 minute to fly 11 kilometers. So now we have 1 minute less of reaction time. 

Some readers who still believe the PRC will not attack Taiwan in the future will argue that Chang is worried over nothing. Perhaps anticipating the deniers, he made his point in layman's terms in an interview for local media: 

China's Xi'an Y-20s can bear civil aviation numbers because they are transport aircraft. Auxiliary aircraft like the Shaanxi Y-8 and Shaanxi Y-9 can be disguised as well. These kinds of strategies are often used against the enemy. Defenses must be strengthened at Taiwan's seven main airports, including Kaohsiung International Airport.

Impact on the Ground

And it is not just the Air Force that will have to continue to be on extra-high alert. Dealing with incursions and attacks requires a joint response. Therefore, as Chang stated, "Anti-aircraft troops on the ground must remain alert and be ready to hold the line of defense. The adjustment of the flight path means Taiwan's military will have one minute less to respond to any incidents."

Chang has previously called for an Air Force reserve to be created. Current pilots are exhausted due to the constant scrambles they need to conduct against PRC incursions. He also hopes such a reserve force would help with training and retention in the Air Force.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel (in the center) intruded into territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa, and a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat was on guard following it. (2023, ©Nakama, Hitoshi City, Ishigaki, Okinawa)

Strategic Consequences Beyond Taiwan

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a similar situation exists in Japan with its Air Self-Defense Force, particularly those assigned to Naha. They must regularly scramble over the Senkaku Islands against PRC aircraft. Many become tired and leave the force. 

The lack of commercial pilots and the "2030 Crisis" is making it particularly attractive for military pilots to transition into the private sector. Meanwhile, the wear and tear on aircraft and the cost of fuel also impose horrendous burdens on countries like Taiwan and Japan.  Both have much smaller military budgets compared to the PRC.

This is exactly what China is seeking to do: to wear down the military pilots of its enemies as well as their aircraft. 


The PRC's change in flight routes is not a simple aviation administration matter. It has fundamental, indeed strategic, consequences for Taiwan. The PRC is using "Lawfare" to change the rules (unilaterally) and normalize its behavior. It is attempting to wear down its neighbors' ability to resist by a perverse form of civilian-military fusion. In addition, it is providing cover to insert its military aircraft into a weakened Taiwan airspace, and beyond.

Other countries, especially but not limited to Japan, will need to pay close attention to this unilateral change in the status quo. And not only pay attention but protest vociferously (or otherwise respond in kind). They must let the PRC know that the rest of the world sees the dangerous game Beijing is playing.


Author: Robert D Eldridge
Robert D Eldridge, PhD, is a former political advisor to the US Marine Corps in Japan and is a 2024 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at Tamkang University. He is the translator of "The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan" (Lexington, 2022). Read his essays and analysis in English on JAPAN Forward.

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