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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Taiwan, China agree to increase air links, tourism in landmark agreement

BEIJING - Taiwan and China agreed Friday to a landmark deal to expand charter flights and tourism, ending a 59-year break in transport links between the political rivals.

The pact, signed in Beijing during the first formal talks since 1999, came a day after the two sides reached consensus on establishing permanent representative offices.

Such missions would mark a huge step forward in establishing contacts and mutual trust, although Taiwan's chief negotiator, Chiang Pin-kung, emphasized that his government still needed to approve the measure.

"There is still a long way to go for normalization of cross-strait economic and trade exchange," Chiang told reporters after the signing of the transport and tourism pacts.

Chinese President Hu Jintao praised the new deals when he met with Chiang and his delegation afterward.

"This shows that the improvement of cross-strait relations has got off to a good start. It is to be celebrated," Hu said. "I believe it will be widely welcomed by compatriots on both sides of the strait."

Chiang told reporters later that he had also raised the issue of Taiwan's participation in international affairs.

China claims sovereignty over the self-governing island, which broke away from the mainland's control after the communists won a civil war in 1949, and Beijing has campaigned to limit Taiwan's international connections.

"I told Hu ... that the two sides both belonged to the Chinese race and we should make positive contributions to the international community together," Chiang said.

He quoted Hu as saying Taiwan should become involved in international bodies like the World Health Organization and suggesting that Taiwan and China seek mutually acceptable solutions to the issue.

The expansion of charter flights was a key agenda item for the talks that began Thursday. Those flights are now limited to four annual Chinese holidays and are usually packed with Taiwan residents on the mainland returning home to visit family. Taiwan has banned direct scheduled flights since 1949.

Newly elected Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou wants to gradually expand the charter schedule and supplement it with regularly scheduled flights by the summer of 2009. His target is to have one million Chinese tourists visit Taiwan every year, well above the current level of 80,000.

The agreement will allow 36 weekend charter flights across the 160-kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait from Friday to Monday beginning July 4.

Flights will be shared equally between Chinese and Taiwanese airlines, servicing routes between the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Nanjing and Taiwan's capital, Taipei, and seven other cities on the island.

Flights would be open to anyone carrying valid documents, a change from the past when they were limited to just Taiwanese and Chinese.

A separate agreement permits up to 3,000 Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan each day for stays of up to 10 days, according to the Straits Exchange Foundation, Taiwan's quasi-official negotiating body headed by Chiang.

Negotiations are carried out by semiofficial bodies because Beijing's communist regime refuses to recognize Taiwan's government.

On Thursday, the two sides agreed to set up permanent offices in each other's territory for the first time, one of the biggest steps they have taken to build mutual trust.

The agreements mark a victory of pragmatism over politics, with the parties setting aside their ideological differences to strengthen booming trade and investment ties.

In other areas, the sides remain far apart.

China continues to build up its military, especially its missile force, to back up its threat to invade Taiwan if the island should declare formal independence or refuse demands for political unification with the mainland.

Beijing has strongly opposed Taiwan's close ties with the United States.

© The Canadian Press, 2008



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