The countdown to Hong Kong's handover is starting to realign China-Taiwan aeropolitics. There has been little progress in the two years since Taipei predicted direct flights would start in 1997, but there are signs that China and Taiwan want better relations and are willing to take tentative steps towards direct air links.

Taipei has already accepted that its airlines will be flying to the 'new' special zones of China after the UK hands Hong Kong over in July and Portugal hands over Macau 30 months later. In fact, Taipei officials sidestep whether their 'direct flights' prediction relates simply to these flights rather than flights to what is Chinese territory. But Taiwan is also taking steps towards the latter.

China Airlines and EVA Airways are both opening Beijing offices. Taiwan's transport ministry has also drafted a plan to ease Chinese visits to Taiwan, starting with government officials, then business visitors, and finally all citizens. This plan awaits final approval, but the very fact that the ministry is proposing something that would have been considered heresy several years ago illustrates the shift in attitude.

China's quick return of a hijacked Taiwanese aircraft earlier this year has also led Taipei to renew calls for cross-strait talks. Su Chi, Taiwan government spokesman, says Beijing's release of the jet will help warm relations.

However, Beijing is still sending out mixed signals, although analysts view them as mostly positive. After loud protests over Taiwan's air accord with Cambodia, Beijing's objections to Taiwan's bilateral with Russia were more muted (see story opposite). Moreover, Beijing has just given the green light for Taiwan and Hong Kong shipping groups to discuss sea links after Hong Kong's handover. This is the first time in twenty months that China has raised a substantive issue with Taiwan.

Beijing also finds ways to raise points indirectly. Chen Guangyi, director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, used approval of a new airport in Fujian province to announce that the province closest to Taiwan would soon have four airports ready to handle direct flights.

The growing prospect of such flights has prompted Roger Stephenson, marketing director for Macau's airport, to concede that Macau plans to reduce its dependency on Taiwan traffic. Since the start of flights between Macau and Taiwan, the latter's citizens now account for 40 per cent of traffic through the Portuguese enclave, though most of them simply transit to or from China.

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific is playing down the likely impact of Air China's plan to launch fifth freedom Hong Kong-London flights. These are allowed under last year's accord, explains Duncan Pring, Cathay's European route manager, who says it is 'balanced' because it also gives Cathay 'over-flying rights across China to North America and Europe.'

Source: Airline Business