- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

China may be ready to reopen talks with Taiwan on direct commercial air links that have been frozen since 1999, Taiwan’s top diplomat to Washington said in an interview yesterday.

David T. Lee, the island’s de facto ambassador to the United States, said Beijing would be responding to a little-noticed olive branch offered by Chen Shui-bian, the democratically elected president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

“Hopefully, next year we may see a real window of opportunity to reopen dialogue between the two sides,” Mr. Lee said at a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Direct commercial flights between Taiwan and China are considered the most significant of the so-called “three links” designed to improve business and personal ties between the two sides. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province, while Mr. Chen’s government aggressively has defended Taiwan’s sovereignty rights.

Two mainland aviation officials, in what was billed as a private visit, traveled to Taipei last week. Taiwanese press accounts said the talks focused on possible direct charter flights across the Taiwan Straits for the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday, as well as opening Taiwan to mainland Chinese tourists.

Currently, the growing number of Taiwanese travelers flying to the mainland must first stop in Hong Kong — greatly increasing the duration and cost of flights .

In one sign of the recent thaw, Chinese President Hu Jintao met briefly with Mr. Chen’s personal representative on the sidelines of the just-concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Chile, the first meeting of its kind in 12 years.

On another issue, Mr. Lee said Taiwan’s government is committed to passing an $18 billion defense package that is strongly backed by Washington but has become a sharp partisan issue. He said the government may try to pass it in a lame-duck session after the Dec. 11 parliamentary elections, or push for passage in the new legislature early next year.

Polls say Mr. Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its allies have a good shot to take control of the country’s parliament from the opposition Nationalist Party.

Mr. Chen, who had softened his pro-independence rhetoric since narrowly winning re-election in March, vowed over the weekend to push for a new constitution “which fits today’s realities in Taiwan.”

Mr. Lee said Mr. Chen has promised that the new constitution would not change the country’s name, flag or sovereign status — all red lines for Beijing.

The Taiwanese diplomat said he realizes his country’s frequently unruly democratic process “often raises concerns for our enemies and our allies alike.”

“But the world has to realize that Taiwanese democracy is very different now from the political culture of our past,” he said. “We are now a very diversified, very pluralistic country, with leaders who are never shy about expressing their opinions.”

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