Air links for China, Taiwan

Saturday's first-ever direct commercial flights come as Taiwan eyes a new Chinese 'antisecession' law.

The first-ever commercial air flights from China to Taiwan lift off Saturday at 8 a.m. from three mainland cities - and fly here nonstop.The planes, carrying Taiwanese business people for the Chinese New Year's holiday, will head south to Hong Kong's neutral airspace, then sharply curve northward to what Beijing calls the "renegade province" of Taiwan.

These flights, or "direct links," are the first of their kind. No Chinese aircraft have been allowed in Taiwan's airspace for more than 50 years. Such flights were long discussed but only agreed to during the Macao talks on Jan. 15.

The arrangement is a sign that China and Taiwan can still negotiate. However, relations across the Taiwan straits remain murky and dangerous, with new tension over an "antisecession" law that Beijing plans to pass in March. The proposed law appears to create a legal mechanism for use of force by China if Taiwan declares independence.

The China-Taiwan standoff is one of East Asia's oldest disputes, dating to the civil war that ended in 1949 when Nationalist forces fled to the island. China and Taiwan have not met officially since 1998, when Taiwan started moving toward a multiparty democracy - and away from Beijing's highly emotional desire that Taiwan unify with the motherland.

From Taipei's vantage, the antisecession law sounds ominous. It appears to criminalize efforts or expressions of Taiwan independence, and is regarded as a possible legal excuse for war - just as US administrations and the US Congress use the Taiwan Relations Act as a legal rationale for selling weapons to Taiwan.

"The creation of this law makes it easier [for China] to decide to use force, since the burden of such a decision can be attributed not just to individuals, but to a need to be lawful," says Chih-Cheung Lo of the National Policy Research Institute in Taipei. "We hope the Bush administration takes a stronger position on this law. So far they have said nothing." (Chinese visits to Washington to explain the law reportedly met with disapproval.)

Beijing leaders so far offer no indication that direct flights to Taiwan will bring a softer tone or new talks. China's Taiwan Affairs office continues to say that cross-straits relations, as they are known, are "grim." The phrase was also used in a Chinese Defense White Paper released in December.

The brighter side of the picture, say experts, is that talks on direct flights are promising. Officials from China and Taiwan met under the auspices of voluntary associations, not in an official capacity, but obviously took cues from their governments. Privately, officials in both capitals say the approach may be a baby step for disputes both small and large.

Currently Taiwanese must travel to and from China via Hong Kong. It is a sore point for the nearly one million Taiwanese who do business in China, and are responsible for a whopping $100 billion investment there. Only Taiwanese business owners and their families and employees, not students or tourists, are eligible for the landmark flights, which originate in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guanzhou. Trips will run daily until Feb. 20. In Shanghai, tickets sold out in two days, and there is a passenger waiting list.

Saturday, the 8 a.m. Beijing liftoff will be broadcast nationally amid pomp and circumstance. Beijing is enthusiastic about direct links since they are described as "domestic flights," and serve a useful function in the effort to enforce a "one China" principle that insists the island of 23 million people has no sovereign borders and is part of China.

Relations between Taiwan and China grew tenser last spring after the reelection of President Chen Shui-bian. Mr. Chen is viewed in Beijing as a "radical," plotting the independence of Taiwan. Chen does advocate, in fact, a revise of Taiwan's Constitution. He plans to submit a revised constitution for a public referendum in late 2006, for elections in 2008. But red-hot issues like a new flag or a new name aren't up for talks, says Tzen-Ping Sung, head of Central News Agency in Taipei. Talk of referendums in Taiwan is greatly disliked in Beijing.

This December, however, Chen's party was defeated in local parliamentary elections. Analysts here say Taiwanese were tired of heavy issues relating to their cross-straits status. In a further wrinkle, it appears that defeat may bring Taiwan's first coalition politics, as James Soong's People's First Party may join Chen on some issues, including the purchase of US weapons.

Chinese leaders don't assume Taiwan will unify with China any time soon. The island has been separate for more than 50 years, and prior to 1949 was under Japanese occupation. There has been a powerful Taiwanese identity movement. What China wants is to prevent further separation. Unknown but crucial: How far Washington will take sides and with whom. The views of Condoleezza Rice, the new US secretary of State, are unknown.

In the meantime, the proposed law has created apprehension in Taiwan.

"I have probably violated this law according to what I have said in Taiwan," says Bi-Khim Hsiao, a Taiwan legislator. "I've been pro-independence; Does that put me on a most-wanted list? Am I an international criminal when I travel?"

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