Foreign diplomats on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are surprised that capitalist Taiwan has broken a longstanding policy and held direct talks with communist China on the return of a hijacked airliner. The talks represented the first such negotiations between Taiwan and China since the Nationalists fled the mainland after losing a civil war to the communists in 1949.
Diplomats say the decision could open the way for further contacts. But officials in Peking and Taipei have insisted that the hijacking case is strictly a civil aviation matter that has no political significance.
Taiwan's unexpected offer to meet with officials of China's state airline, CAAC, was announced in Taipei May 13. The offer came after CAAC sent a second cable urging Taiwan's national airline, China Airlines, to discuss the matter directly -- without involving a third party.
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 about what kind of man would switch sides after serving Taiwan's Nationalist government for more than four decades.
In Peking the following week, Wang denounced alleged corruption and mismanagement by the Taiwan government, which he had served both as a member of the ruling party and as a pilot flying U-2 spy planes over the mainland. Wang praised developments on the mainland, asserting that Peking upheld freedom, democracy, and human rights. He also said he wanted to be reunited with his 82-year-old father in Sichuan Province.
His two crew members, copilot Tung Kung-shih and mechanic Chiu Ming-chih, asked to return to Taiwan. Chinese officials agreed to let them go. The Taiwan cargo jet and two crewmen are to be handed over to Taiwan in Hong Kong, aviation officials announced May 20. The transfer was negotiated during four days of talks.
``We are not quite satisfied yet because we demanded that [the] pilot . . . be given the chance to express his will in a free environment,'' said Taiwan's chief delegate, Chung Tsan-jung.
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 are likely to criticize the government for softening its commitment to resist the Chinese communists.
Western diplomats here say Taiwan's decision hints at an important shift of thinking in the ruling party, which could remove its siege mentality of the past 40 years. If so, this would be a turning point in Chinese politics.
But, except for this predecent-breaking hijacking case, there is little evidence so far for making such a conclusion.