Taiwan is struggling to retain or expand regional air links in the face of Beijing's campaign to isolate the island state and force it into direct ties with mainland China.

The commercial agreement that serves as a bilateral between Taiwan and Hong Kong was extended for an interim six months at the end of April as an impasse threatened to disrupt services. But large hurdles remain in renewing the expired agreement for five years past 1997, including consensus on the number of carriers on the route.

Taipei also seems ready to swallow its pride in talks with Macau, as Taiwan's threat to divert its China-bound traffic to Macau as a ploy in Hong Kong talks has produced no visible effect. An official from Taiwan's mainland affairs council concedes the law barring companies with more that a 20 per cent Chinese interest from doing business in Taiwan could be relaxed - Air Macau is 51 per cent owned by China. The most likely solution to the Taiwan-Hong Kong-Macau dilemma is for Taipei to drop its insistence on designating more than one carrier for the Hong Kong route, allow China Airlines to keep that route if it removes the Nationalist China flag from its livery, and grant the Macau route to EVA Air.

CAAC deputy director Li Zhao has tried to exploit suggestions that CAL might delete the flag from its livery by offering to do the same for Chinese airlines, if that made it easier for Taiwan to accept the idea of direct flights.

Of more concern in Taiwan is its continuing impasse with South Korea since Taipei cancelled third and fourth freedom flights in August 1992 after Seoul gave diplomatic recognition to Beijing. With commercial links still suspended, fifth freedom carriers are suffering declining traffic, emphasised by Northwest dropping its daily Taipei-Seoul flights in April.

Talks recently broke off because Taiwanese representatives were unwilling to accept South Korea's proposed reference to Taiwan in a draft agreement as an 'area' rather than a 'sovereign territory.'

Soon after, Taipei granted CAL permission for charter flights to North Korea. Speculation that they are designed to pressure Seoul has been fueled by Tsay Ching-yen, director general of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, who predicts that 'it would not be impossible' for Taiwan to enter a bilateral with North Korea before it reached agreement with South Korea.

The only good news for Taiwan seems to come from Europe. Through unofficial means, it recently established air links with Switzerland and the Netherlands and expects a similar agreement with Belgium soon.

Source: Airline Business