Conceding the inevitable, Taiwan has taken the first fateful steps that could lead to direct air links to China within two years. But Beijing's willingness to facilitate such flights will depend on whether CAAC pragmatists prevail over policy ideologues who hope to capitalise on Taipei's recognition that direct links are necessary.

In June, Taiwan's transport ministry expected to deliver to the government's executive council a plan for direct flights to China - starting with transshipment of sea cargo, and proceeding to direct sea links, cargo flights, passenger transit flights, and finally, direct passenger flights.

The growing impetus for direct flights comes from many directions - Hong Kong's reversion in two years to Chinese control; Taiwan's expanding business and investment ties with the mainland; the surge in Taiwanese, now estimated at 3 million a year, flying to China; and Taiwan's ambition to become a regional hub. According to Nicholas Chen, a lawyer with Perkins Coie in Taipei, 'direct cross-straits transport links will be a necessity if Taiwan wants to become an Asia-Pacific regional centre'.

Direct links have been the subject of three recent conferences. Speaking at one, Chen found Chinese airline and aviation officials interested in Taiwan's plan and bemused that Taipei would openly seek China's reaction. 'That's a watershed for the Taiwan authorities to acknowledge that the other side does play a role in this,' says Chen.

It could be months before Taiwan supports direct flights, though it has decided to press ahead with transshipment of sea cargo as a first step. Kaohsiung became Taiwan's first port to designate an 'offshore' area where vessels could transship cargo between China and third countries, allowing direct shipping links across the straits. Five shipping companies obtained Taipei's approval.

Beijing's reaction foreshadows the struggle that could erupt within China over direct flights. A spokesman for China's foreign ministry applauded Taiwan's plan, sa0ying Beijing welcomed 'any measure' that would speed up cross-strait links. But the deputy director of China's communications ministry criticised Taipei for acting 'unilaterally,' and warned that no shipping companies would receive Chinese approval until China and Taiwan negotiated the entire matter. Aware that Taiwan opposes on principle any direct negotiations, his statement seemed intended to force Taipei to eat even more humble pie.

The big question on both sides is when direct flights will really start. Taiwan's draft plan says 1 July 1997, but that it is also the date for China's sovereignty over Hong Kong. As Chen notes, 'We don't know if that means direct flights across the straits or to Hong Kong, and I don't think the Taiwanese authorities know either.'

Source: Airline Business