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China-Taiwan flight deal marks further thaw in ties

The agreement, made during the first formal talks since 1999, will allow weekend charter flights starting in July. Critics say that Taiwan has made too many concessions too quickly.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 2008


Taiwan and China sealed a deal on cross-strait charter flights and tourism Friday in Beijing, in the first formal talks between the two sides in nearly a decade. The deal comes amid a rapid thaw in cross-strait relations under Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou, who took power May 20.

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Analysts cautioned that Friday's deal was just the first – and easiest – step on the long and difficult road toward reconciliation between the two bitter rivals. Critics in Taiwan said President Ma had made too many concessions to China too soon.

"Eventually, the two sides will reach the end of the list of things they can agree on easily, and the process will slow down," says Shelley Rigger, an expert on cross-strait relations at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Under the deal, cross-strait charter flights will run on weekends starting July 4, shuttling Chinese tourists and Taiwanese businessmen between eight airports in Taiwan and five in the mainland. Ma hopes to realize regularly scheduled, daily flights by the summer of 2009, and see up to 3,000 Chinese tourists per day come to Taiwan.

Local media also reported that the two sides had raised the issues of joint oil exploration and establishing representative offices in each other's territories to manage exchanges. But Taiwan's government Friday poured cold water on the proposals, saying Taiwan's team had not been authorized to negotiate on those issues. "I don't think that can be accomplished in the foreseeable future," said Mainland Affairs Council vice chairman Chang Liang-jen, referring to the representative offices.

Another sign of lingering suspicions was the fact that weekend charter flights will not take direct routes across the Taiwan Strait. Instead, they must first fly through Hong Kong airspace, because of security concerns. That will add 90 minutes or more of travel time to flights from Taipei to Shanghai or Beijing.

Taiwanese military's concerns

The roundabout flight path highlights the challenge of squaring the economic benefits of closer cross-strait ties with national security concerns.

Taiwan's military, which must plan for the worst, is leery of allowing Chinese passenger planes to fly directly across the strait. "A jet fighter could hide beneath a 747 and appear to be one airplane on radar," says one Defense Ministry official. "They could use civilian airplanes as camouflage if they want to attack."

Military officials had also hoped that two airports near sensitive airbases on Taiwan's rugged east coast would not receive charter flights from China. Those bases – in Hualien and Taitung – are "the last line of defense for air combat," the defense official says. But the deal includes the two airports.

Air power is critical to Taiwan's defense. Security experts say the cross-strait military balance has tilted in China's favor in recent years as Beijing has rapidly built up its submarine, missile, and air defense capabilities. But Taiwan still holds an edge in air power quality, if not quantity.