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.

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.

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.

Andrew Yang, a cross-strait security expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, says that one option under consideration was allowing flights to Shanghai or Beijing to pass through Japanese airspace, which would further reduce flying time.

But he says flights directly across the Taiwan Strait would require negotiated confidence-building measures and "safety corridors." "If there's no guarantee of 'safety corridors,' then it would be easy for the Chinese air force to fully utilize the routes to conduct military strikes," says Mr. Yang. "That would leave Taiwan no time to respond."

Talks on those issues would have to involve national security and military officials from the two sides, he adds – something that's not yet under consideration.

Ma has raised a high bar for even starting such security talks, saying that China must first withdraw its missiles aimed at Taiwan. "That's the biggest obstacle that will hamper the negotiation process," says Yang.

China has about 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles deployed along the coast opposite Taiwan, as well as cruise missiles, according to the latest count from the Taiwan government. To help counter that military threat, Taiwan has requested Patriot anti-missile batteries, F-16 fighter jets, submarines, attack helicopters, and other equipment from the US.

But according to a Washington Post story Thursday, the US has delayed approval of $11 billion worth of those and other purchases. The paper reported that Washington had delayed the approval at Taiwan's request, as sensitive cross-strait negotiations proceed.

Taiwan's government declined to comment on that report Friday.

China views self-governed Taiwan as part of its territory, and periodically threatens force to back up its claim. Beijing strongly objects to any US military sales or support for the island.

Giving up too much?

Taiwan's pro-independence opposition party said Ma was giving up too much to Beijing in order to make good on campaign pledges to boost cross-strait ties.

"The KMT has traded in defense interests for improved cross-strait relations, and this is extremely dangerous," says Lin Chen-wei, director of international affairs for the Democratic Progressive Party, and a former National Security Council official. "We're saying, why are you going so fast? We're very concerned about their strategic direction."

Mr. Lin noted that the pro-independence government had laid the groundwork for Friday's deal in informal talks over the last few years. It negotiated a package deal of cross-strait passenger charter flights, cargo flights, and tourism. But Beijing refused to sign a deal until the more China-friendly KMT retook power last month.

Another sore point is that Friday's deal does not include cross-strait cargo flights. That's high on Taiwan businesses' wish list, because many ship high-tech parts to the mainland for assembly.

According to Lin, Beijing is dragging its feet on such flights because Taiwan's cargo industry is much stronger than China's, and because China wants Taiwanese firms to move their R&D and high technology to the mainland.

Lin says that even if Beijing agreed to a missile pullback, it would be an empty gesture. "Withdrawing [the missiles] is not enough. If China wants to truly show its goodwill, they need to destroy them."

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