Strait talking

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 1997, 12:00am

When a journalist from Taiwan hijacked an aircraft in a bid to seek political asylum in China, an opportunity to restart the stalled cross-strait talks literally dropped from the skies. There is much to be gained by seizing it.

Dialogue was broken off two years ago after the visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States. China's missile testing then heightened the tension as relations deteriorated.

Since then, there has been deadlock and non-communication. The question now is whether the hijacker has brought about a change of the situation merely by obliging contact between Beijing and Taipei. They can hardly be expected to sound a friendly note, but at least they are in touch.

The question of extradition has to be broached, and some form of agreement arrived at. If they can take this chance to sit round the table to try to settle the hijack dilemma, could discussions of other concrete issues follow? It is illusory of Taiwan to think that China will change its basic position on sovereignty over the island; that is a bedrock issue for Beijing. But what may be sought is a resumption of the discussions which were underway before Mr Lee's US visit took place.

Tang Shubei, vice-chairman of the semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, says the time is not ripe to resume political talks. But he also implies that China might be willing to discuss practical issues.

The cross-strait situation will be a source of regional instability so long as Taiwan appears to hanker after recognised independence. Talks on practical issues could also be a first step towards dissipating distrust. The questions of direct flights and of trade are there to be addressed, before thornier political issues come under discussion.