Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Will the new year's links expand?

By Ralph Cossa

Happy Lunar New Year! Finally, there's a bit of good news to report in cross-strait relations. During the holiday period, the first direct flights between China and Taiwan since the 1949 Chinese civil war took place. But, while both sides applaud these charter flights as an important step forward, neither seems ready to build upon this important initiative.

A week in Beijing and Taipei have convinced me that, on most issues, the two sides remain hopelessly divided. If something looks black in Beijing, it's white in Taipei; if it's day in one capital, it most assuredly is night in the other. The difference was most stark when it came to Beijing's recently proposed (but still not clearly defined) anti-secession law. According to Beijing, the law will merely codify existing policies while opening the door for cross-strait dialogue if Taipei avoids crossing specified "red lines." Taipei, on the other hand, sees it as a prelude to an attack and an attempt to destroy free speech.

Similar night-versus-day arguments can be heard regarding China's "one country, two systems" formula and the applicability (or even existence) of the "1992 consensus," under which cross-strait dialogue last occurred in the early 1990s.

It was both surprising and mildly encouraging, therefore, to see a great coincidence of views when the direct flights were discussed. Both sides agreed that the arrangement, brokered during unofficial talks, was a positive step forward. It not only allowed direct flights for the first time -- New Year flights had been allowed in 2003, but the planes had to touch down in Hong Kong or Macau before proceeding on to Taipei ? but also permitted Chinese as well as Taiwanese airlines to participate.

There were still restrictions: only Taiwanese businesspeople were allowed to use the flights (causing an uproar by Taiwanese students studying in China) and the aircraft had to use established air routes over Hong Kong, rather than using more direct "as the crow flies" routes. Nonetheless, the flights marked a historic first.

Security specialists on both sides also agreed that the flights would not have been possible were it not for the outcome of the December legislative elections. The pan-greens had been widely expected to win a majority in the elections -- President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) had brashly predicted victory -- but the opposition retained a majority of seats.

While officials in Beijing did not believe that this setback would deter the "Taiwan authorities" from pursuing their "independence" goal, it was seen as severely limiting Chen's options, allowing Beijing to relax a bit.

Meanwhile, Chen needed to demonstrate to middle-of-the-road voters (not to mention the US) that he was capable of cooperating with Beijing, thereby putting pressure on Taipei to accept the agreement even though most analysts believed that Taipei yielded more than Beijing (although both sides compromised).

Officials in both Taipei and Beijing also expressed the common hope that the holiday flights would be just the first step toward greater cross-strait cooperation, identifying the flights as a modest step toward instituting the direct links long sought by Beijing but resisted by Taipei. Most felt that future holidays would see similar direct flights, perhaps involving students as well as businesspeople.

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