New charter flights give lift to Taiwan-mainland relations

Taiwanese airlines began running shuttles from Shanghai to Taipei Sunday for the first time in 54 years.

Ideally, a flight from Taipei to Shanghai would take about an hour by plane - the equivalent of jetting from Boston to Washington.

But for Lee Po-chin, who asked that his real name not be used, the trip has always been a triathlon of sorts: starting with a 90-minute flight to Hong Kong, followed by long visa lines, and ending with a two and a half hour flight north to Shanghai.

As a result, Mr. Lee, an executive with a computer manufacturing company, along with hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese businessmen like him, can't wait to see what becomes of the indirect charter flights between Taiwan and China that began service Sunday.

The first Taiwanese commercial planes to land on the mainland in more than five decades will ferry nearly 2,000 Taiwanese business people along with their families, returning home in time for the lunar New Year, Feb. 1. And although flight organizers have reportedly booked just 80 percent of seats - because a stopover in Hong Kong is still required - the flights are already seen as a significant first step to lifting a ban on direct air links between the two arch-rivals. It's a sign, some observers say, that both sides are increasingly willing to put aside nettlesome political issues in the interest of improved trade and economic relations.

"This is not a government to government or military to military issue. This is people to people, economy to economy," says Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.

Direct trade and communication links between Taiwan and China were severed following civil war in 1949. The ban on direct flights has come to symbolize the mistrust and fear that have dogged cross-strait relations. And while their eventual reestablishment has been the official policy of both countries, neither side has been able to agree upon terms for negotiations.

Until recently, direct links were always tied to Taiwan's unresolved political status. The debate often took the form of a diplomatic food fight, with each side hurling daily invective. Premier Zhu Rongji once warned that the Chinese would "use all their blood" to take back the island.

However, the charged atmosphere suddenly came down a notch three months ago, when China dropped its demand that the flights be called "domestic," a nonstarter for the pro-independence Taiwanese government.

This laid the groundwork for the New Year charter flights, approved after intense political wrangling. Local Taiwanese support for direct flights has also intensified in the past few years, as Taiwanese businesses have flocked to the mainland to tap into the booming economy there.

"We want to see the issue resolved as soon as possible because it is costing businesses a lot in both time and money," said Guy Wittich, CEO of the European Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. "We hope the [Taiwanese] government makes a bold decision and authorizes the direct flight links."

Closer economic ties

To many, the ban on direct flights isn't an obstacle to developing a key market - but simply a nuisance. According to Mr. Wittich, about 50,000 Taiwanese companies already do business on the mainland. "They're already there and will go there whether there are direct flights or not."

Last month, the Taiwanese government announced that China had surpassed the United States for the first time as Taiwan's largest foreign market, accounting for 30 percent of all exports. According to Taiwan's Central Bank, Taiwanese businesses have invested $66.8 billion in China.

At the same time, the Taiwanese expatriate population in China has skyrocketed. Ten years ago, traveling to the mainland was unthinkable for most Taiwanese. Now, an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 Taiwanese live there, with 300,000 in the Shanghai area alone.

Lee, tired of the daylong trek back and forth, recently became one of them. Like many other Taiwanese businesses, his company expanded operations to Shanghai a few years ago to take advantage of cheaper labor.

He flies back to Taipei regularly to visit his wife and two children and now strongly supports lifting the ban. "It would make my life much easier," says Lee.

But while the Taiwanese business community sees China as the future of the island's economy, the proindependence Taipei government has tried to reduce what it deems is an "over-reliance" on the mainland market. Government critics say that the current economic boom in China belies a more complicated reality - including a yawning gap between rich and poor and social instability.

"We shall not be misled or bewildered by China's economic potential," Vice President Annette Lu announced recently.

Security is another major concern for Taipei, which fears the Chinese might use direct air routes to perpetrate an attack. China currently has about 400 missiles aimed at Taiwan across the 100-mile strait and it would take just seven minutes for a Chinese fighter jet to reach Taiwanese airspace. China has made clear that it will invade if it determines Taiwan is dragging its feet on reunification.

President Chen has tried to deflect calls for direct flights by stressing that any changes in cross-strait policy must be decided by Taiwanese voters.

Local media reports a couple weeks ago of a Taiwanese girl in need of a heart transplant illustrate just how politically sensitive the direct flights issue is for Taipei. According to the reports, Chinese officials offered to charter a direct flight from Shanghai to Taipei to deliver a donor heart to the girl, who was in a suburban Taipei hospital. But in the end, the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's top China policy-making body, rejected the offer citing the "complicated nature" of the Chinese plan and the "complicated medical problems" involved.

Increasing public support

There is a growing sense, however, that most Taiwanese are willing to accept the idea of closer economic ties with China, including direct flights, while not necessarily supporting closer political ties.

"The Taiwanese people are reasonable and clever enough to understand the situation," said Mr. Yang.

Indeed, many Taiwanese say they view the issues separately.

"I don't particularly worry about it because we are a democratic country," says 28-year-old Taipei resident Zhong Hong-ru, referring to increased trade with China. "If we can keep our way of living, voting, and law enforcement, [Taiwan's] independence should not be hurt a bit."

It's uncertain how long the Taiwanese people are willing to maintain this delicate balance of views. But it has become clear that trade has done in 10 years what military brinkmanship and fiery political rhetoric couldn't do in more than 50.

"These interactions are bringing about a real mutual understanding between both sides," says Yang. "But without reciprocal goodwill gestures from China, we can't move forward."

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