Taiwanese plane lands in disputed Pratas Islands as scheduled after earlier turnback

Lawrence Chung
·3-min read

A Taiwanese aircraft carrying military and coastguard personnel has landed in the disputed Pratas Islands in the South China Sea after the airline was turned back by Hong Kong authorities 11 days ago.

The UNI Air flight left Kaohsiung International Airport at 8.35am on Monday, arriving in the Taipei-controlled territory, known as the Dongsha Islands in Chinese, at 9.44am, according to Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration.

“The flight took about 70 minutes and it was a smooth landing at the Pratas Islands,” said Lai Yu-chieh, the administration’s spokesman for the Pratas and Spratly islands.

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The plane returned to the southern city of Kaohsiung at 11.39am with more military and coastguard personnel who were taking leave, Lai said.

He said the charter flight had departed and arrived on time, and he was not aware of any communication between the authorities in Taiwan and Hong Kong before the plane took off.

The Pratas Islands are located between Taiwan and mainland China. Photo: CNA
The Pratas Islands are located between Taiwan and mainland China. Photo: CNA

The atolls are located about 445km from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan and about 300km from mainland China, but they fall within Hong Kong airspace. They are also claimed by Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory. Taiwan operates at least one flight a week to the islands, carrying government, military and coastguard personnel, but they are off-limits to ordinary travellers.

An official with Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration said only that the flight on Monday was “in line with normal aviation procedures, arriving and departing in the Pratas Islands as scheduled”.

He would not comment on the October 15 incident, when a UNI Air military charter flight had to turn back after Hong Kong aviation authorities said there were “dangerous activities” taking place below 26,000 feet.

The Taiwanese aircraft was an ATR 72 twin-engined turboprop with a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet, so the airline said it had returned to Kaohsiung to wait for “further notice” from Hong Kong.

But Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department said the Taiwanese airline had chosen to abandon the flight plan. It said the Hong Kong authority had followed “established practices and procedures”, and after warning the Taiwanese of the danger, it was the Taiwan side that had cancelled its request to enter the city’s airspace.

In response, Taiwan released a full transcript of the exchange between the two aviation authorities ahead of the planned flight, in which the Taiwanese authorities were warned of a “danger zone” en route to the disputed islands.

A Beijing military source later told the South China Morning Post that the People’s Liberation Army had been conducting an air-to-air missile exercise in the South China Sea on the morning of October 15.

However, a day after the incident, Taiwanese defence minister Yen Te-fa had said there were no military activities taking place in the area and that China’s maritime safety agency had not issued any warnings. He also rejected the explanation given by Hong Kong and appealed to the city’s authorities not to “disrupt the order of international aviation”.

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