Foreign diplomats on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are surprised that the Taiwan government has broken a longstanding policy and agreed to hold direct talks with mainland China on the return of a hijacked airliner. Diplomats say the decision could open the way for further contacts, though officials in Peking and Taipei have insisted that the hijacking case is strictly a civil aviation matter.
Taiwan's unexpected offer to meet with officials of China's state airline, CAAC, was announced in Taipei Tuesday. The offer came two days after CAAC sent a second cable urging Taiwan's national airline, China Airlines, to discuss the matter directly -- without involving a third party. As of Wednesday, Peking had not acknowledged Taiwan's reply. Some diplomats speculate the authorities are carefully planning the best way to break what they see as good news to the Chinese public.
Reports from Taipei indicate that discussions could begin in Hong Kong next Monday. Until early this week, China Airlines had agreed only to negotiate the release of the aircraft and crew through the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific airline.
The May 3 hijacking of a Boeing 747 cargo plane, en route from Bangkok, was the first incident in which the pilot of a Taiwan civilian airliner flew to the mainland. Cmdr. Wang Hsi-chueh was one of China Airlines' most experienced fliers. With his defection, he left behind in Taipei a wife and three grown children, and gave up a $4,000-a-month job only a few years before retirement.
The incident was embarrassing for Taiwan, which has held to an unswerving policy of no contact, no negotiations, and no compromise with the mainland communist government. Peking has gained in recent years from a more favorable image under leader Deng Xiaoping, seeming to act reasonably in efforts to end longstanding hostility and bring Taiwan under its control.
Commander Wang's defection has aroused curiosity here about what kind of man would switch sides after serving Taiwan's Nationalist government loyally for more than four decades.
Wang appeared at a press meeting in Peking last week. He denounced alleged corruption and mismanagement by the Taiwan government, which he had served both as a member of the ruling party and as a military pilot flying U-2 spy planes over the mainland. Wang praised new developments on the mainland, asserting that the Peking government upheld freedom, democracy, and human rights. Since then, he has been hidden from public view. His two crew members, copilot Tung Kung-shih and mechanic Chiu Ming-chih, have asked to return to Taiwan, and Chinese officials say they are free to go. They are reportedly still in Canton, presumably held until Taiwan arranges for their return.
Taiwan's decision has raised important political questions, despite both sides' insistence that this is a nonpolitical matter. ``This is nothing other than a political matter,'' a Western diplomat here says. ``There's a lot more going on here than can be seen on the surface.''
Diplomats in Taiwan agree, according to press reports which speculate that the decision was taken at the highest level of the Taiwan government, namely by President Chiang Ching-kuo.
Most observers familiar with Taiwan's long history of rebuffing Peking's attempts to open communications had supposed Taiwan would abandon the aircraft and two crew members wanting to return. This would have satisfied members of the ruling party who now seem likely to criticize the government for softening its commitment to resist the Chinese communists.
``Hard-liners will not be happy. It will be seen as a compromise with communist China,'' said a diplomat in Taipei, according to Reuters. Some Western diplomats here say Taiwan's decision hints at an important shift of thinking in the ruling party which could remove it's siege mentality of the past 40 years. If so, this would be an historic turning point in modern Chinese politics. But, except for this predecent-breaking hijacking case, there is little evidence so far for such a conclusion.