- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

SHANGHAI, China, Jan. 26 (UPI) — In a sign of improving relations between China and Taiwan, a charter plane flying indirectly from Taipei touched down in Shanghai early Sunday morning, marking the first time in more than a half century that a commercial airliner from the island landed on the Chinese mainland.

The empty China Airlines Boeing 747 arrived at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport at around 9:00 a.m. local time on Sunday and was greeted by a delegation of Chinese and Taiwanese officials. It departed about three hours later, carrying 243 passengers home to Taiwan, via Hong Kong, for the Chinese New Year.

"Today's trip may be a short five hours and the distance may remain unchanged, but it is a first in history," Wei Hsin-Hsiung, general manager of the Taiwan-based China Airlines, said during a brief appearance.

Direct air and sea transportation between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait — a 100-mile-wide body of water — has been banned since Taiwan and China split following a bloody civil war that ended in 1949.

The last commercial airliner from Taiwan to land on Chinese soil was around 53 year ago, as Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government was fleeing the advance of Mao Zedong's Communist Red Army forces.

"This is a breakthrough in cross-strait relations," Shanghai's Vice Mayor Han Zheng told a large crowd of Chinese and foreign journalists who gathered on the tarmac to witness the plane's arrival and departure.

Over the next two weeks, chartered flights will fly back and forth between Taipei and Shanghai, shuttling mostly Taiwanese businessmen and their families home for the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year. The flights, operated by six Taiwanese airlines will still be required to stop over in Hong Kong and Macau, but passengers will not have to switch planes, as had been required in the past, airline industry officials said.

Taiwan's decision to allow the charter flights, which analysts say is an indication of growing economic ties between the two sides, comes as Beijing has been demanding faster progress opening the so-called "san tong" or "three links" - direct transport, trade and mail routes between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

Beijing has pledged to use military force to regain the self-governing island if it declares independence from the mainland. Despite this, economic relations between the two sides have also grown considerably over the past decade and China has become Taiwan's second biggest trading partner after the United States.

In 2001, The value of cross-strait trade amounted to $27.85 billion, of which 78.8 percent ($21.95 billion) was Taiwan exports to China and 21.2 percent ($5.9 billion) imports from China. To date, Taiwan-based businesses have invested an estimated $100 billion on the Chinese mainland and at least one million Taiwanese live in major eastern Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-ban has resisted calls for an end to the ban on direct flights, arguing that opening up aviation routes with its giant Communist neighbor leaves the island vulnerable to an airborne attack.

In the absence of strong political ties between the two sides, Beijing has been eager to push the issue of economic cooperation as a means to smooth the way for resumption of cross-strait talks on reunification.

At a press conference in Beijing on Friday, Li Weiyi, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, also called for an increase in direct air transportation across the Taiwan Straits. "The only way to fundamentally resolve the inconvenience for Taiwan compatriots in cross-Straits travel is to realize direct air transportation," he said, in a statement that sought to underscore the economic benefits of direct links.

On Friday, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, in a major policy speech carried by state media, called on Taiwan to allow for the resumption of direct flights to the mainland and cross-straits reunification talks.

"The establishment of cross-straits communications links should not be further delayed, as it conforms to immediate interests of the majority of Taiwanese businessmen, and will also bring great convenience to all Taiwanese people on both sides of the straits," the vice premier was quoted as saying be state media.

In a departure from the typical rhetoric that Beijing usually uses on Taiwan in policy statements, Qian did not mention the use of force against the self-ruled island, but warned Taipei against relying on assistance from "foreign forces to stir military confrontation" — a slight that was clearly aimed at the United States.

"Talks about opening up the three links are not political negotiations and may not touch upon the political meaning of one China," he said, adding that "attempts to split Taiwan from China are doomed to failure."

Chinese experts downplay the significance of the new charter service flights, saying there would need to be a political breakthrough between Taipei and Beijing before direct transportation links are fully opened.

"Major political divisions are likely to remain, despite the growing trade between Taipei and the Chinese mainland," said Wei Liang, a researcher in international relations at Shanghai University. "This is mainly the fault of the Taiwanese authorities, who are stubbornly refusing to recognize the one-China principle."

But the resumption of transportation links between the two sides is an important step towards "promoting cross-strait relations" while fostering an environment of mutual trust and economic cooperation, he said.

Taiwanese businessmen have long complained the lack of direct transportation routes have hindered the growth of economic ties between the two sides, and have lobbied hard in Taipei for re-opening the links.

"Our people share a common history, so it is right that we should work towards improving relations," said Li Teng-Jung, a Shanghai-based Taiwanese businessman, who was scheduled to return home to Taipei on Sunday for the lunar New Year celebrations. "I think this is a very positive step in the right direction."

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