CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
First direct flights from Taiwan to mainland
, February 12, 2005
Mainland China and Taiwan recently agreed to allow direct flights between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait during the forthcoming Lunar New Year holidays.
The pact, announced at a joint news conference in Macau on January 15, has cleared the way for the first non-stop commercial flights between the mainland and the island since the Republic of China Government retreated to Taiwan in 1949. The deal marks an encouraging breakthrough in settling cross-strait differences.
It comes after a time when relations between the two sides were strained. Beijing was angered by the Chen Shui-bian Government's pro-Taiwanese statements during last year's legislative elections in Taiwan.
President Chen has been under pressure from both the Americans, who guarantee this free nation's security, and the local populace who, like most people, simply want to get on with their lives, to "do something" about cross-Taiwan Strait ties and quiet the rising tensions with Beijing.
The recent death of Taipei's main cross-strait negotiator, Koo Chen-fu - who brokered talks in Singapore in 1992 that led to a thaw in relations - put pressure on President Chen to show he could still make progress without Koo.
Koo had negotiated a very clever compromise deal over the nature of "one China". This compromise was overturned by former President Lee Teng-hui's statement that the ties between the two cross-strait rivals were on a "state to state" basis.
While commentators have warned that the breakthrough will not necessarily settle the vexed question of the so-called "three links" - direct air, cargo and postal links - international ratings-agency Standard & Poors predicted that the direct links will presage the opening of direct transport links.
According to the US-based S&P, little chance exists of armed conflict across the strait and the most likely outcome in the region is "continued peace", despite an increase in temperature in the cross-strait spat.
S&P said: "Tighter economic links will provide incentives to leaders on both sides to avoid any destabilising military moves, while the very nature of deepening economic ties provides China with a newer, more subtle lever to influence Taiwan politics."
Foreign observers have pointed out that, despite the apparent breakthrough, only the island's two international airports - one at Taoyuan outside of Taipei and the airport of the southern port city of Kaohsiung - have been nominated. The other proposed airports - subsequently rejected on flimsy grounds - are domestic airports, even though the airport in the central city of Taichung is expected to become international. Thus, Taipei can still argue that the flights are "international" and not domestic in nature.
Whether direct flights for the traditional holiday period lead to something better is uncertain.
Why is this air flight breakthrough important? Because families are the basis of Chinese society. The importance of family ties is especially evident during the Chinese New Year holidays, when thousands of Taiwan businessmen on the mainland want to come back to spend the Spring Festival with their families.
So far, approximately one million Taiwan citizens have gone to the mainland to work or live. Taiwan businessmen have invested a total of US$100 billion in the mainland market.
Until now, travellers have had to stop in third places - mainly Hong Kong or Macau - and change planes, a requirement that adds hours to a flight that would take a mere one hour if made directly across the Taiwan Strait.
The forthcoming flights will not travel directly across the 160-kilometre Taiwan Strait. They will pass through Hong Kong airspace but will not have to land there. Even so, the arrangement will save a considerable amount of time for travellers.
During the Cold War years, there was practically no contact of any kind between the two sides. No one was legally allowed to enter the mainland from Taiwan, or vice versa.
The end of the Cold War and subsequent political liberalisation brought about a thaw in cross-strait relations and contacts. Taipei started to allow Taiwan residents to visit their relatives on the mainland. And, despite government policies forbidding trade with the mainland, more and more Taiwan businessmen went across the strait to invest or work.
Taipei's leading English-language newspaper, the China Post
, editorialised in response to the breakthrough: "With such a large number of Taiwan residents hoping to come home and go back in a more economical way, it is inhumane to maintain a ban on direct flights across the strait."