Gathering Places


Taiwan needs direct links
with the mainland


HONK KONG >> After years of shadox-boxing, Taiwan and mainland China appear to be making progress toward establishing the "three links"-- direct trade, transport and postal links. As usual, political considerations are holding up economic decisions.

The mainland wanted to call transportation between the two sides "domestic," meaning that Taiwan is part of China, while Taiwan wanted to call them "international," in line with President Chen Shui-bian's assertion that there are different countries on each side of the Taiwan Strait.

Last month, however, the mainland signaled a significant change in stance. Vice Premier Qian Qichen was quoted by Taiwan's United Daily News as saying that while Taiwan must accept the "one China" principle before a political dialogue can resume, the "three links" are an economic issue. Qian said transportation links between the two sides can simply be called "cross-strait."

Taiwan officials have welcomed this new flexibility. But there are at least two remaining problems. China's unwillingness to deal with the pro-independent President Chen and Taiwan's insistence that an agreement requires the two governments to sit down and negotiate. Security concerns in Taiwan are another problem.

Days after Qian's remarks, Taiwan's Defense Ministry publicly opposed commercial flights between Taiwan and the mainland on the grounds that it would endanger national security. The military has long been worried about the possibility of a sneak attack by Chinese aircraft if direct flights are allowed across the strait. It takes only seven minutes for a Chinese fighter jet to reach Taiwanese airspace from the mainland.

From time to time, Taiwan officials have suggested that it may be possible to hold non-governmental talks with mainland China. However, on Thursday Chen seemed to rule out non-governmental talks when he said: "Any form of direct transport links, including charter flights, involves government authority that cannot be carried out by the private sector. So if the two sides both are sincere, we should sit down and have direct contact, dialogue and consultation." But these may not be Chen's last words on the subject. The business community is strongly in favor of direct links.

Certainly, there are many issues to discuss that involve government decisions. Nonetheless, if both sides have the will, they can probably negotiate through non-governmental intermediaries. Hong Kong, for example, recently reached an aviation agreement with Taiwan that was negotiated by airlines, even though government officials were in the background offering advice and, presumably, making decisions.

Taiwan is in a severe economic downturn; many businessmen believe direct links will help revive the economy. They say such links will allow Taiwan businesses to cut transportation and management costs and enable them to focus on research and development in Taiwan while shifting manufacturing to the mainland. Others warn that even more manufacturers will shift production to the mainland and create a "hollowing out" of the Taiwan economy.

One government-commissioned survey, conducted several days after the Qian remarks, showed that 70 percent of respondents feared that direct transportation links would accelerate an outflow of capital from Taiwan. However, 70 percent also support the introduction of such links as long as Taiwan's security, dignity and equality are not jeopardized.

Taiwan is getting close to one decision regarding direct links. With the approach of the Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb. 1, many of the 500,000 or so Taiwanese working on the mainland will want to return to the island for family reunions. More than half of Taiwan's legislators have signed a petition backing the inauguration of charter flights between Taipei and Shanghai during the holiday period. At present, most people wanting to fly from Shanghai to Taipei have to travel first to Hong Kong to catch a flight to Taipei.

Premier Yu has promised a definite answer within 10 days. A mainland spokesman, Li Weiyi of the Taiwan Affairs Office, last Wednesday welcomed the proposal for charter flights between Shanghai and Taipei in January, but said that mainland airlines should be involved as well.

Chen has said that while cross-strait transport is inevitable, Taiwan's sovereignty, dignity and security must be safeguarded. Although he has angered Beijing by saying that Taiwan and China are separate countries, Chen is anxious to maintain stable relations. For that reason, it was announced last Wednesday that 85-year-old Koo Chen-fu, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation and Taiwan's principal negotiator with the mainland, will remain in office for another term.

Direct transport and other links between the two sides of the strait are an economic necessity. Despite Taiwan's reluctance, support for them within the business community is so strong that, despite the Chen administration's reluctance, they cannot be delayed indefinitely.

Frank Ching is a writer based in Hong Kong.

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