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China-Taiwan flight deal marks further thaw in ties

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Another sign of lingering suspicions was the fact that weekend charter flights will not take direct routes across the Taiwan Strait. Instead, they must first fly through Hong Kong airspace, because of security concerns. That will add 90 minutes or more of travel time to flights from Taipei to Shanghai or Beijing.

Taiwanese military's concerns

The roundabout flight path highlights the challenge of squaring the economic benefits of closer cross-strait ties with national security concerns.

Taiwan's military, which must plan for the worst, is leery of allowing Chinese passenger planes to fly directly across the strait. "A jet fighter could hide beneath a 747 and appear to be one airplane on radar," says one Defense Ministry official. "They could use civilian airplanes as camouflage if they want to attack."

Military officials had also hoped that two airports near sensitive airbases on Taiwan's rugged east coast would not receive charter flights from China. Those bases – in Hualien and Taitung – are "the last line of defense for air combat," the defense official says. But the deal includes the two airports.

Air power is critical to Taiwan's defense. Security experts say the cross-strait military balance has tilted in China's favor in recent years as Beijing has rapidly built up its submarine, missile, and air defense capabilities. But Taiwan still holds an edge in air power quality, if not quantity.

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