It would scarcely seem a likely time for China to take an initiative to improve cross-strait links. Beijing is still livid at Vice-President Lien Chan's stopover in New York. Suspicions have been heightened by Mr Lien's mysterious visit to Europe. Nonetheless there is good cause to hope such anger will not derail the slow process of improving ties. Xinhua's announcement yesterday, of detailed rules governing direct shipping links, was an encouraging reminder that, despite the chill that periodically seems to set in at the political level, the trend towards closer economic and social relations is probably irreversible. These regulations will have been prepared long before Mr Lien set off on his trip. The mainland officials responsible for them have admitted they did not know of this latest diplomatic storm. Nor will they lead to an immediate start in cross-strait shipping. Beijing wants direct links, while Taipei continues to insist on the fiction of an offshore transshipment centre in Kaohsiung. China's new regulations only allow shipments by carriers from either side of the straits, while Taiwan prefers to target foreign-registered carriers. But the two plans are not irreconcilable. Taipei's transport ministry has even called them quite similar, although other Taiwanese officials have responded more cautiously. The remaining differences could be readily overcome, given goodwill on both sides. Yesterday's proposals were a step in this direction. The onus is now on Taipei to respond by showing similar flexibility. In Hong Kong, there inevitably will be fears that the advent of direct shipping links will destroy the territory's traditional role as a transit point, so damaging the local economy. Some adverse impact is inevitable. But it would be wrong to take too cataclysmic a view of the consequences. International trade is not a zero-sum game in which one city's gain must always result in another's loss. Cross-strait links will boost the economies of Taiwan and the neighbouring mainland province of Fujian. That can only be beneficial to all of China, including Hong Kong. The territory may be forced to sell itself harder: demonstrating why its modern and efficient port facilities still make an attractive transit point for Taiwanese traders. But Hong Kong thrives on such competition. Ten months after quasi-direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland began, with only a brief stop in Macau, the territory has not suffered the devastating consequences that some predicted. So there is no reason why direct shipping links should be any more harmful.