China Eastern Airlines said on Tuesday it has been forced to cancel 106 round-trip flights to Taiwan around the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday amid a row between Beijing and Taipei over flight routes.
The carrier said on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – it had no choice but to cancel the flights, which had been added to its usual schedule to accommodate high holiday demand, after what it said was a refusal by Taiwanese authorities to approve them.
It said it was “strongly dissatisfied” with the failure to approve the routes and denounced the action.
A Taiwanese regulatory official said this month that Taiwan had yet to approve applications from China Eastern and the mainland’s Xiamen Airlines to add 176 new flights across the Taiwan Strait during the Lunar New Year holiday because in recent weeks the airlines had used disputed air routes close to the island.
Those routes were created by Beijing without consultation with Taipei.
Chen Chin-sheng, director general of Taiwan’s navigation and aviation department, said on Monday the self-ruled island was ready to deploy military planes to pick up citizens from Taiwan-controlled Quemoy island if – in a worst-case scenario – they could not get flights back to the island for the holiday.
The decision to put on hold the application for extra cross-strait flights was in retaliation for Beijing’s launch of a northbound flight route, M503, on January 4.
Taipei has called Beijing’s route expansion irresponsible, saying it poses a threat to regional security.
At its nearest point, M503 is just 7.8km (4.8 miles) from the line dividing the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and the mainland. Taipei said that means its air force would have less time to respond should there be an air attack from the mainland.
The halt on additional flights by the two mainland airlines is believed to have affected at least 50,000 passengers who had planned to return to the island for the holiday.
There are more than 200,000 Taiwanese businesspeople, their families and students working or living on the mainland.
Cross-strait relations have been strained since President Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence -leaning Democratic Progressive Party, took office in 2016.
She has refused to publicly endorse the one-China principle, which states that Taiwan and the mainland are both part of China.
Beijing has insisted this is the political basis for the two sides to continue exchanges and talks.