Beijing wants direct flights. But can it take the risk?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 January, 2003, 12:00am

In the complex world of cross-strait relations, the old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for, you may get it', seems appropriate to describe the dilemma facing both sides over direct air links.

It has been almost 53 years since the Kuomintang imposed the ban on direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland, at the end of the civil war. However, it looks as though the link may be re-established this year.

Last Friday, authorities on both sides granted rights for the Taiwan-based airline, Far Eastern Air Transport, to fly special charter flights to Shanghai during the Lunar New Year. Other airlines are lined up.

The breakthrough came just days after Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian hinted, in his New Year's address, that he was ready to take up Beijing's offer of establishing the so-called 'three links' (transport, trade and telecommunications) under an 'economic formula' instead of a political one.

At first glance, this must seem like vindication for those in Beijing who have been pushing for direct links. This is especially since Vice-Premier Qian Qichen said last July that the mainland would no longer insist on Taipei negotiating the resumption of direct links under the 'one China' principle, and that they could instead go through 'economic' entities.

Rhetoric aside, there are obvious practical reasons why the resumption of direct links sooner rather than later will please Beijing. The resulting increase in the exchange of people and investment will make Taiwan more dependent on the mainland. A more complex reason is that with direct links, Taiwan will be less likely to rock the boat at a time when the mainland will have its hands full with its own socio-economic challenges.

Yet there are reasons why Beijing might not necessarily want to grant direct air links to Taipei quickly. First, direct links is Mr Chen's political trump card ahead of presidential elections in March 2004. It has been an open secret in Taipei that Mr Chen has for a long time been planning a breakthrough concession on direct flights.

Obviously he would prefer they be established just before the election to give him a boost going into the polls.

Last month's mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung have added urgency to Mr Chen's decision-making. With a still-weak economy and a high unemployment rate, caused largely by the relocation of factories across the strait, the environment in Taiwan last month was ripe for attacks on Mr Chen and the candidates that he backed.

The Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou smashed the challenge by Mr Chen's hand-picked man in Taipei, winning more than double his opponent's share of the vote. The Chen-backed incumbent in Kaohsiung, Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, won narrowly.

The results were unsettling for the Chen camp, with just a year left until their own re-election campaign begins in earnest. They have added weight to Mr Chen's deliberations over when to pull his cross-strait rabbit out of the hat.

So at the start of the Taiwan president's fourth year in office, Mr Chen is apparently ready to take his foot off the brake on direct air links. By working with Mr Chen to establish the direct links, Beijing runs the risk of giving him a knockout punch for the 2004 elections.

The alternative is no easier. Mr Chen has been branded a 'separatist' and all official overtures by him have been rebuffed, especially since his yi bian yi guo (each side a country) comments last August. If Beijing is not willing to forge direct links, Mr Chen can use the rejection to score points with voters and, perhaps, with Washington.

If Beijing believes Mr Chen cannot be defeated in next year's poll, it will likely push ahead with direct flights. But if the opposition unites with a credible ticket against Mr Chen, then dialogue on direct links could drag on until after the elections.

The first Taiwanese-operated flights from Shanghai to Taipei, via Macau, will provide further indicators of which way the wind is blowing. Stay tuned.

Ray Cheung is a reporter for the Post's China desk