Taiwanese and Chinese negotiators reached an understanding in unofficial talks in Hong Kong yesterday which could end a decades-old ban on direct shipping across the Taiwan Strait. Lin Hsing-shan , head of the Taiwan delegation, said afterwards: 'Following this meeting between the two civilian associations, and with our permission and approval to allow operation of the Kaohsiung to Fuzhou and Xiamen route, operators can immediately submit applications to China to start business.' Meng Guangju, head of the mainland negotiation team, praised the deal. Mr Meng said it would pave the way for other direct links. Shipping companies in Taiwan and China can now start applying to their respective cross-strait shipping associations for certification and then apply for final government approval. Taiwan media said foreign-flagged ships might begin sailing direct routes as early as March. Hsieh Ming-huei , the head of the Navigation and Aviation Department at Taiwan's Transport and Communications Ministry, said it would take about 50 days to process applications. Mr Meng played down the deal's impact on Hong Kong, saying it would only 'slightly affect' the territory's status as a transshipment port between Taiwan and the mainland. He said the number of companies allowed to run would depend on the demand, but added that more ports would be opened if demand increased. About 14 shipping companies have already registered and received approval from Kaohsiung harbour authorities to operate transshipment services.