Chinese official to visit Taiwan amid row over opening of new flight routes near the island

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan will reiterate its opposition to Beijing's decision to open new flight routes near the island when a Chinese delegation visits for talks next month, a Taiwanese official said on Thursday.

The Chinese authorities reportedly hope to use the routes to ease congestion on existing paths caused by the growing volume of air traffic.

However Taiwan last week slammed the unilateral move as "unacceptable" and said it posed a potential air defence threat.

Mr Zhang Zhijun, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, is scheduled to travel to Kinmen, a Taiwan-administered island, for a three-day visit in early February, according to his Taiwanese counterpart Wang Yu-chi. "I'll use the opportunity to express our solemn position", said Mr Wang, when asked if he would speak to Mr Zhang regarding the flight routes.

China said that under the plan, it would start flying four new routes from coastal Zhejiang province and the cities of Fuzhou and Xiamen in Fujian province over the Taiwan Strait.

While China had consulted with Taiwan over one of the new routes, M503 - without reaching an agreement - it had not discussed the other three flight routes W121, W122 and W123, due to start operations from March 5.

Mr Zhang's trip will also include talks on Chinese fishing vessels in Taiwanese waters and economic matters.

Mr Wang hailed 2014 as a critical year for China-Taiwan relations, with the first exchange of visits by ministerial-level officials in decades taking place.

However, many Taiwanese remain wary of Beijing's increasing influence over the island. A planned pact to free up the services trade with China sparked an occupation of Taiwan's parliament and mass street protests last year.

And, in November, the China-friendly Kuomintang party suffered a humiliating defeat in local elections in what has been seen as a test of the government's detente with China. The elections are seen as a key barometer before the 2016 presidential race.

China considers self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory awaiting reunification - by force if necessary. They split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.