Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) showed muted support for President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) call for talks next year on direct transportation links with China, and used the opportunity to push for his long-held dream of turning Taipei's domestic Sungshan Airport into the main cross-strait terminal.
Ma made his comments during a address in Washington to a luncheon meeting of the US-Taiwan Business Council.
However, in an impromptu press conference with Washington-based Taiwanese reporters after the speech, Ma reiterated his opposition to Chen's direct links initiative, saying that unless the political aspects of cross-strait relations are settled, technical efforts such as expanded economic ties cannot be successful.
"Just a few days ago, our [president] announced that he will press the plan to establish direct links with the mainland, and -- hopefully, by the end of next year -- we will be able to see results, Ma told some 100 US business representatives, scholars and luncheon attendees.
"He might be a little bit optimistic, but at least he has recognized the need to really beef up the effort in this regard,"Ma said.
In his speech promoting Taipei as a regional business center for US firms, Ma noted that "at the moment, you can't fly directly to the Chinese mainland from Taipei. How can you expect the top-notch companies to use Taiwan as a regional operational center?" he asked.
The answer, Ma said, would be to use Sungshan as the main cross-strait terminal -- instead of CKS International Airport -- which, he said, would prove inadequate for the increased traffic direct links would generate.
"If we started direct flights between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, it won't take too long before Chiang Kai-shek Airport will become saturated," he said.
He added that the number of flights "will quickly surpass the total number of all aircraft between Taiwan and the rest of the world, and that would certainly make Chiang Kai-shek inadequate."
The use of the Sungshan airport, Ma said, would save one hour in travel time at each end of a flight from Taipei's industrial areas and Shanghai. It would take only 15 minutes from the Nankang industrial park in eastern Taipei to the airport and 80 minutes from Taipei to Shanghai, Ma said, allowing executives to make a return trip in one day, without having an overnight layover in Shanghai.
After the luncheon, in remarks to Taiwanese reporters, Ma reiterated his opposition to Chen's direct links proposal.
The plan "will meet with great difficulties because he advocates one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait," Ma said.
Chen's desire to have flights by the end of next year "will make the negotiations very complicated," unless the political talks between Taiwan and China are completed before such "technical" efforts as direct transportation links are tried, he said.
"If he continues to advocate one country on each side, maybe that will have a good impact on his supporters in Taiwan, but he will have, I think, great difficulty to get the other side to the negotiating table," Ma said.
Ma said it is "very important to go back to the 1992 consensus" before attempting to engage in direct-link negotiations. "That is a formula that both sides can agree upon," he said.
According to pan-blue camp politicians such as Ma, the 1992 consensus was an agreement between Beijing and Taipei in which both sides agreed to "one China" -- but allowed that each side had its own interpretation of what that "one China" meant.