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Taiwan china begin historic direct commercial flights

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Taiwan, China Begin Historic Direct Flights
Fri Jan 28, 2005 07:25 PM ET

By Alice Hung and Lindsay Beck
TAIPEI/BEIJING (Reuters) - Commercial jetliners from Taiwan and China took off on Saturday for the first non-stop flights in 55 years across the narrow strait dividing the arch- foes, raising hopes for permanent air links and better ties.

A China Airlines Airbus A330-300 wheeled off from Taipei's international airport shortly before 8 a.m. (7 p.m. EST Friday) and is set to be the first Taiwan airline to fly to Beijing since 1949, scheduled to land at 12:20 p.m. (11:20 p.m. EST Friday).

Minutes later, a Boeing from China Southern Airlines took off from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, set to be the first Chinese airliner -- except for hijacked aircraft -- to land in Taipei since 1949, at 9:30 a.m. (8:30 p.m. EST Friday).

The temporary charter services will ferry Taiwan business people and their families home for the Lunar New Year on Feb. 9, the biggest holiday in the Chinese-speaking world.

Taiwan has banned direct transport links with China since the Nationalists fled to the island in 1949 after losing the mainland to the communists in a civil war.

"I can't describe how excited I am. The world is watching this historic moment and I am so proud to be part of it," said Jessica Pan, a flight attendant for Taiwan's China Airlines, before take-off.

An estimated 1 million of Taiwan's people, or 5 percent of its population, work or live in China and must normally transit in places like Hong Kong when traveling between the two sides.

China views self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province and vows to attack the democratic island of 23 million people if it moves toward formal statehood.

Officials from Taipei and Beijing held out hope the temporary charters could lead to a resumption of talks and reduce political tension in the Taiwan Strait, which many security analysts see as one of Asia's most dangerous flashpoints.

"We hope the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can turn their confrontational relationship into that of cooperation," said Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

"I am very happy we can see the Lunar New Year charter flights taking place. That will make a very good basis for the development of cross-Strait relations."


On the eve of the first charters, China and Taiwan voiced hopes for better ties ahead. A senior Chinese official offered to jumpstart talks with Taiwan at any time, in the right circumstances.

Despite political tensions, trade between the rivals has boomed since the late 1980s, with Taiwan companies pouring up to $100 billion into China.

"If charter flights can be normalized, I believe that can help cross-Strait relations when it comes to talks on direct links and improving the atmosphere between the two sides," said Andy Chang, a China expert at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

"Of course, we know it will be a long process before the two sides can talk about air rights."

Analysts in Beijing were less optimistic, saying it was unlikely the two sides would change their political positions.

Beijing wants Taiwan to agree it is part of China before any formal talks, whereas Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian insists the two sides negotiate as equals.

"These direct flights cannot help resume the political dialogue between the two sides," said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute for International Studies at Tsinghua University.

"Neither side is prepared to give up their political goal, so I think the political tension will come back very soon, no later than the second half of this year," Yan said in Beijing.

Under the landmark agreement clinched by aviation officials acting in a private capacity, 12 carriers are to operate 48 charter flights between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China and Taiwan's Taipei and Kaohsiung from Jan. 29 to Feb. 20.

In 2003, Taiwan airlines were commissioned to fly holiday charters between Shanghai and Taipei. Taiwan barred direct flights, requiring them to make stops in Hong Kong or Macau.

Last year, China refused to allow a repeat of the 2003 charter flights, fearing it could help Chen win re-election.

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