A Chinese initiative to start talks over direct flights between the two countries has set off a major debate within Taiwan. Because of long-standing and deep-seated differences, air travel between China and Taiwan is only via indirect connections mainly through Hong Kong, Macau, or the Philippines.

Chinese vice-premier Qian Qichen caught Taipei by surprise by announcing a relaxation in one of Beijing's main preconditions for such talks. Instead of demanding that they be called "domestic", which was as unacceptable to Taipei as the latter's proposal to call them "international", Qian offered that such talks simply be called "cross-strait".

This has set off a flurry of reactions within Taiwan. After years of impasse, Qian's proposal raises the prospect of real progress. Businessmen who deal with the mainland want direct flights, the defence ministry is opposed, and political leaders are divided.

Both Taiwan's premier and president say they would welcome talks, but insist they be held between governments, rather than private groups as suggested by a visiting official from the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Some Taiwanese legislative leaders are calling for a full debate, while others seem opposed to any talks with China. The head of one political party proposes charters between Taipei and Shanghai on a trial basis over the Chinese New Year. Overall Taiwan seems torn between a pragmatic approach to direct flights versus insisting on preconditions that would force Beijing to recognise Taiwan's separate political status.

The issue is far from decided, but Taiwan's civil aviation authority has taken the interim step of identifying local airports that could be used for direct flights.

To muddy the water further, EVA Airways and Far East Air Transport are seeking Taipei's permission to perform maintenance and repairs on Chinese aircraft that would be flown to Taiwan for such work.

Source: Airline Business