Taiwan-China flights begin

Saturday, January 29, 2005

BEIJING/TAIPEI — Nonstop flights between mainland China and Taiwan took off Saturday for the first time in more than half a century.

Traditional dragon dancers in bright costumes performed on the tarmac as three airplanes prepared to leave Beijing's airport Saturday, the first to fly nonstop to Taiwan since 1949. The ceremony marked the first of 48 charter flights allowed to operate between Taiwan and the mainland over the three-week Chinese New Year holiday season.

Later, a China Southern Airlines plane, which took off from the Guangzhou, landed at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport amid similar fanfare. This marked the first successful direct flight across the two sides, still technically at war.

The Republic of China government banned direct flights after the Kuomintang defeat in the Chinese Civil War to the Communists caused the government to retreat to Taiwan. Although there is consensus on all sides to resume the three links — direct postal, telephone, and airline links — between mainland China and Taiwan, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has been reluctant to move ahead, citing the possibility that the People's Republic of China could disguise troop carriers as commercial airliners to invade Taiwan.

All normal airline flights between the two sides have to be routed through a third party — usually Hong Kong — making a three hour flight between Taipei and Shanghai last eight hours.

Taiwanese and mainland airlines are forbidden to travel into their respective airspaces, forcing passengers to change airlines too. These restrictions were first lifted for Chinese New Years in 2003, but those flights still stopped briefly in Hong Kong.

Taiwanese legislator John Chang, the grandson of former President Chiang Kai-shek, spoke of the flights' significance at the ceremony.

Mr. Chang said that despite differences, the flights symbolize "the hopes of the two sides for peace, stability, dialogue and mutual development."

Mr. Chang had been part of the group of opposition lawmakers that helped arrange the flights.

This year's flights were planned after diplomatic negotiations in Macau, ending on January 15. They are aimed to allow the easy reuniting of families which are split between the island and the mainland for the celebrations.

The ROC government hopes the flights can form the basis for further negotiations and better relations with the People's Republic of China. However, the PRC, which is refusing to deal with the independence-leaning government of President Chen, is less optimistic.

Most of the passengers taking advantage of the nonstop flights, running until February 20, are Taiwanese businesspeople who work on the mainland.

Many Taiwanese have lobbied their government to ease its ban on direct air links, especially as trade continues to grow between the island and the mainland, despite the political tensions. Mainland Chinese officials this month said cross-strait trade had reached a record $70 billion in 2004.