PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 12:00am

IN LATE JANUARY and early February, several hundred thousand Taiwanese living in mainland China are expected to return home for family reunions to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which will fall on February 1.

However, they won't be able to board a flight in Shanghai, where most of them live, and fly directly to Taiwan. This is because, for political reasons, the powers that be on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have been unable to agree on such flights.

Currently, people who wish to fly from one side to the other have to make stopovers in either Hong Kong or Macau, which makes each journey costlier and more time consuming.

Enter legislator and former Taiwanese foreign minister John Chang.

Mr Chang has proposed that charter flights be organised during the holidays for Taiwanese businessmen who live on the mainland.

Although Mr Chang is a member of the opposition Kuomintang, he has received the support of more than half the members of the 225-seat legislature, including members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

One would have thought that such a proposal, which would make life much easier for Taiwanese living on the mainland and be profitable for airlines providing such services, would have been warmly welcomed. However, it remains to be seen if the idea will fly.

Beijing has been supportive but the Taiwan government, however, is cool to the idea. Last week it announced its decision: No charter flights will be allowed to fly directly from one side of the strait to the other.

Time and Money

A statement issued by the cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council said that government-to-government talks must be held before there could be such direct charter flights.

Before cross-strait negotiations resume, the council said, domestic air companies are allowed to seek Chinese approval for indirect charter flights, which must make stopovers in Hong Kong or Macau before entering Taiwan.

'What other colleagues and I are pressing for is non-stop charter flights across the strait,' Mr Chang said after the council's announcement. 'We would agree to fly over Hong Kong or Macau but we hope the landing can be scrapped. What the Taiwan government proposes will cost travellers time and money.

'It takes six or seven hours to fly from Shanghai to Taiwan via Hong Kong or Macau, whereas a direct flight from Shanghai to Taipei would take little more than an hour.'

As the Mainland Affairs Council statement made clear, Taiwan is insisting on government-to-government talks before direct flights can be operated. Beijing, however, refuses to talk officially with President Chen Shui-bian's government in Taiwan unless it first accepts the 'one China' principle. And so, because of political differences between the two governments, Taiwan travellers are likely to have to spend many hours waiting at airports or up in the air.

Another reason Taiwan is cool to direct commercial flights is national security. The Taiwan military is fearful that, once there are direct flights between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, mainland jet fighters may make a sneak attack on Taiwan.

Ideal opportunity

It is difficult to imagine, though, how Chinese air force jets can be camouflaged to resemble passenger planes. And since these will be charter flights, their exact schedules will be known to the government and the military in Taiwan well in advance.

In fact, if Taiwan really has concerns about direct flights, having strictly controlled charter flights during the 10 days or two weeks of the Chinese New Year holidays would be an ideal opportunity for Taiwan military commanders to familiarise themselves with the flight paths of passenger planes crossing the strait, so that they will be prepared to handle direct flights when the two sides do finally reach agreement.

As it is, with the additional fuel costs involved in flying first to Hong Kong or Macau before going on to Taiwan or the mainland, it is unlikely that airline companies will be able to offer a charter fare substantially lower than that for existing indirect flights between Taiwan and the mainland. The only benefit, then, will be time and convenience.

But if each charter flight has to make the same stopovers as non-charter flights, it is difficult to see how Taiwanese business people in the mainland who wish to hop back across the strait to see their families will benefit from charter flights at all.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator