Cross-strait flights unlikely to narrow gap

by Ralph Cossa

Chinese

New Year! Finally, there’s a bit of good news to report in cross-strait relations. During this holiday period, the first direct flights are taking place between mainland China and Taiwan since the 1949 Chinese civil war. But while both sides applaud these charter flights as an important step forward, neither seems ready to build upon this important initiative.

A week in Beijing and Taipei has convinced me that, on most issues, the two sides remain hopelessly divided. The difference was most stark when it came to Beijing’s recently proposed Anti-Secession Law. According to Beijing, the law merely codifies existing policies while opening the door for cross-strait dialogue if Taipei avoids crossing specified “red lines.” Taipei, on the other hand, sees it as a prelude to an attack and an attempt to destroy free speech. Similar night vs. day arguments can be heard regarding China’s “one country, two systems” formula and the applicability (or even existence) of the “1992 consensus,” under which cross-strait dialogue last occurred in the early 1990s.

It was both surprising and mildly encouraging, therefore, to see a great coincidence of views when the direct flights were discussed. Both sides agreed that the arrangement, brokered during unofficial talks was a positive step forward. It not only allowed direct flights for the first time — New Year flights had been allowed in 2003, but the planes had to touch down in Hong Kong before proceeding on to Taipei — but also permitted mainland as well as Taiwan airlines to participate. There were still restrictions: Only Taiwan businessmen were allowed to use the flights and the aircraft had to use established air routes over Hong Kong, rather than using more direct routes. Nonetheless, the flights marked a historic first.

Security specialists on both sides also agreed that the flights would not have been possible were it not for the outcome of the December Legislative Yuan (LY) elections. Taiwan’s ruling coalition had been widely expected to win the elections — Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian had brashly predicted victory — but the opposition retained a majority of seats. While officials in Beijing did not believe that this setback would deter the “Taiwan authorities” from pursuing their “independence” goal, it was seen as severely limiting Chen’s options, allowing Beijing to relax a bit. Meanwhile, Chen needed to demonstrate to middle-of-the-road voters (and Washington) that he was capable of cooperating with Beijing, thereby putting pressure on Taipei to accept the agreement even though most analysts believed that Taipei yielded more than Beijing.

Officials in both Taipei and Beijing also expressed the common hope that the holiday direct flights would be the first step toward greater cross-strait cooperation, identifying the flights as a modest step toward instituting the three direct links long sought by Beijing but resisted by Taipei. Most felt that future holidays would see similar direct flights, perhaps involving students as well as businessmen. A few even speculated that this could open the door for direct cargo flights, something that Taiwan businessmen have long sought — winning the hearts and minds of Taiwan businessmen and investors was another clear goal shared by Taipei and Beijing.

Unfortunately, there was another point upon which both seemed to agree: While both hoped that the flights would lead to a cross-strait breakthrough, neither believed this was likely. “Why not just decide, on Feb. 20, when the last of the 48 direct flights is scheduled to end, to continue the charter flights indefinitely, opening them up first to students and then, eventually, to anyone otherwise authorized to travel in either direction?” I asked officials in both capitals.

In Beijing, the argument was that Chen was not strong enough or bold enough to overcome opposition within his coalition to closer economic ties. While he has long paid lip service to the three links, he “lacks sincerity” in bringing them about. In Taipei, one got a variety of reasons why more breakthroughs were not possible, but few could argue against Beijing’s basic premise: It was primarily resistance from Taipei that kept the links from being opened.

Therefore, the direct holiday flights are unlikely to presage a “great leap forward” — “one step forward, two steps back” seems the more appropriate adage — unless Chen and his unruly coalition are capable of making the political decision finally to move forward on the three links and take advantage of the momentum these flights temporarily offer.