BEIJING, Jan. 15 -- China and Taiwan agreed Saturday to allow direct flights between the mainland and the island during this year's Lunar New Year holidays, a breakthrough in cross-strait relations that comes as tensions between the two sides have been running high.
The deal, announced at a joint news conference in Macau, clears the way for the first nonstop commercial flights between the two political rivals since Mao Zedong's Communist forces overthrew Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government and sent it fleeing to Taiwan in 1949.
Michael Lo, left, of the Taipei Airlines Association, and Pu Zhaozhou, his Chinese counterpart, announce the cross-strait agreement in Macau.
(Bobby Yip -- Reuters)
Analysts said the agreement could signal the beginning of a thaw in relations, which have been strained for more than a year by the pro-independence policies of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and by the Chinese government's threats to respond with military force.
"We reached an agreement and made the arrangements smoothly and harmoniously," Pu Zhaozhou, executive director of China's Civil Aviation Association, told reporters after two hours of negotiations with his Taiwanese counterpart, Michael Lo.
Taiwan has prohibited direct flights to and from China for more than half a century because of security concerns, and the ban became a symbol of the political divide between the two peoples even as their economies have grown increasingly interdependent. China's ruling Communist Party considers Taiwan part of Chinese territory and has vowed to seize the self-governing island of 23 million by force if necessary, but Taiwan says it is an independent, democratic nation.
The dispute and a steady Chinese military buildup across from Taiwan have not stopped Taiwanese businesses from investing as much as $100 billion in China, and as many as 1 million Taiwanese now live and work on the mainland. But travelers between Taiwan and China have to stop in Hong Kong or Macau and change planes, a requirement that adds four hours to what could be a one-hour flight across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait and is seen as a costly obstacle to further economic integration.
China and Taiwan have said for years that they want to restore direct trade, transport and postal ties -- the "three links" -- but talks have collapsed again and again, with each side jockeying for political advantage and negotiators arguing over such details as whether planes and ships can display Chinese and Taiwanese flags.
The agreement announced Saturday covers 48 charter flights between Jan. 29 and Feb. 20, when air travel between China and Taiwan is expected to peak as Taiwanese return home for the traditional Lunar New Year holidays and then make their way back to China. The holidays begin Feb. 9.
Airlines from both sides will be allowed to carry Taiwanese citizens from the mainland cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Taiwan's two largest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, and back again. But in a compromise that highlights lingering suspicions, the planes will be required to fly through Hong Kong or Macau airspace, a major detour.
In Taiwan, analysts said the deal was a political victory for Chen, who has been criticized for damaging relations with China and is under pressure from businesses to deliver on the so-called three links.
Chen has refused to accept Beijing's "one China" principle, which holds that the mainland and Taiwan are part of a single entity called China, and Beijing has refused to open official talks with him until he does. But the charter flights agreement will allow Chen to argue that breakthroughs in cross-strait relations are possible without giving in to China's demands.
Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan's cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, told reporters in Taipei: "This deal lays the groundwork for further negotiations. . . . We hope that the smooth negotiations on New Year charter flights will pave the way for further cross-strait talks, and be a turning point for positive interaction."
But Philip Yang, director of the Taiwan Security Research Center in Taipei, cautioned that fundamental differences between the Chinese and Taiwanese governments remain unresolved. "It's a good beginning, but we can't say that from now on everything is fine in cross-strait relations," he said.
Culpan reported from Taipei.