The victory of the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan elections last December was widely seen as a rebuke of President Chen Shui-bian and an opportunity for the People’s Republic of China. In theory, a democratic check on Mr. Chen allows Beijing to retake the initiative in cross-Strait relations, reach out to ordinary Taiwanese and lower tensions across the Strait. After some hesitation, Beijing seems to have done just that. China and Taiwan have reached agreement on a deal that will permit nonstop charter flights during the Chinese New Year holidays. This move opens the door to broader initiatives that could ease tensions between the bitter rivals.
Tensions between China and Taiwan have steadily increased since Mr. Chen first won Taiwan’s presidency in 2000. Beijing views him as a “splittist” committed to winning Taiwanese independence; China considers the island a renegade province and views every action that Mr. Chen takes through this prism. As a result, the mainland has refused to engage in any official discussions with Taiwan until Taipei acknowledges the “one China principle,” a concession that Taiwan is part of China. Moreover, China is loathe to make any compromises or take any steps that could be interpreted as a “victory” for Mr. Chen. The result has been a political stalemate, rising tension across the Strait and growing fears of a conflict through miscalculation.
Mr. Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party was expected to win a majority in the December ballot. It did not. With the opposition controlling the legislature, China can reach out to Taiwan without seeming to reward the president. In the crudest of terms, it can call compromise a present to the Taiwanese electorate for showing moderation and rejecting the president’s agenda.
Agreeing to allow direct flights between the mainland and Taiwan is just such a step. It is estimated that there are about 1 million Taiwanese living and working on the mainland. The deal opens the first air links between the two governments since 1949; currently travelers between Taiwan and the mainland must go via a third point, usually Hong Kong or Macau. This detour adds four hours to what could be an hourlong flight. In 2003, the two sides reached agreement on New Year flights but they could only fly Taiwanese home from Shanghai, the planes had to stop in Hong Kong, and only Taiwanese airlines were allowed to participate. Last year, with Chinese anger at Mr. Chen peaking, no agreement could be reached.
While once again only Taiwanese are able to fly home, this year’s deal permits 48 flights between the New Year holidays from Jan. 29 and Feb. 20. Each side can select from six airlines to fly between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou on the mainland and Taipei and Kaohsiung in Taiwan. The flights have to pass through the airspace of a third party — Hong Kong or Macau — but they do not have to land.
The big question now is whether the agreement is a one-off deal or whether it anticipates more such arrangements, perhaps in other forms of direct links, such as shipping or postal services. One of the key stumbling blocks in any discussion between Taipei and Beijing has been the form of the meeting: Beijing insists that arrangements be handled by nongovernmental organizations as they are “internal Chinese matters.” Taipei wants government organizations to be present to validate their view that they negotiate with China as equally sovereign entities. In the aviation talks, “quasi-governmental organizations” — the Chinese Civil Aviation Association and Taipei Airlines Association — led discussions, while government transportation officials provided advice from the sidelines in their private capacity. The chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, Joseph Wu, believes that the negotiations on the New Year flights could “pave the way for further cross-Strait talks and be a turning point for positive interaction.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s “10 points” speech, a New Year’s overture toward Taiwan that was largely ignored by Taiwan’s then president, Lee Teng-hui. Most China watchers now see that as a lost opportunity for progress in the cross-Strait relationship. The anniversary is a good occasion for Chinese President Hu Jintao to make his own offer. The New Year’s charter agreement creates momentum and opens the door to other initiatives. Mr. Hu’s readiness to reach out to Taiwan will tell the world a great deal about his intentions and about China’s willingness to focus on Taiwan, rather than its president.
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