Image: Taiwan, China shipping
Andy Wong  /  AP
Taiwan and Chinese officials launched the first regular shipping link in nearly 60 years on Monday.
updated 12/15/2008 4:26:15 PM ET 2008-12-15T21:26:15

Taiwanese jetliners and cargo ships left Monday for China to open a new era of direct air and shipping services with the mainland, formally ending a nearly six-decade ban on regular links between the rivals.

The passenger flights and sailings reflected perhaps the most dramatic improvement in relations between the two sides since they split amid civil war in 1949.

Ties over the years have been consistently tense and, occasionally alarming, with both sides amassing missiles that remain pointed at each other across the 100-mile (160-kilometer) wide Taiwan Strait.

Beijing still claims sovereignty over the democratic island and has repeatedly warned that any attempt at a permanent split could trigger a devastating conflict.

Despite the tensions, flourishing economic ties over the past two decades have bound the two sides together, with annual bilateral trade now totaling about $100 billion.

Presiding over the sailing of the first vessel from Taiwan to China since 1949, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said the new air and maritime links will greatly boost Taiwan's economy and put an end to the sabre rattling of the past.

Ma: 'Replace conflicts'
"We will use dialogue to replace confrontation and reconciliation to replace conflicts," said Ma, who's swearing-in seven months ago marked a turning point in cross-strait relations.

Since taking office in May, Ma has moved aggressively to jettison the anti-China, pro-independence policies of predecessor Chen Shui-bian, trying his best to turn the corner on one of the postwar world's most enduring conflicts.

Besides the shipping and aviation initiatives, he has also sanctioned a significant expansion of Chinese tourist traffic to Taiwan and helped open the way for increased bilateral investment between the sides.

China has reacted warmly and both have agreed to set aside thorny political disputes to focus on trade. The two sides signed a pact early last month to open up the direct links.

Monday's big events began at 8 a.m. (GMT 0000) when a Taiwanese Trans Asia Airways jetliner took off from Taipei's Sungshan airport, transporting 148 Taiwanese tourists and businesspeople on the 80-minute flight to China's financial capital of Shanghai.

At the same time a China Eastern Airlines plane in Shanghai departed for Taipei, winging its way across the Taiwan Strait.

The flights mean that travelers no longer need to switch planes at a third point — typically Hong Kong — while direct shipping precludes the need for vessels to make a brief stop at the Japanese island of Ishigaki.

Before the morning was out, Taiwanese ships from the ports of Kaohsiung, Taichung and Keelung had set sail for Chinese harbors, and a Chinese vessel had departed Tianjin harbor en route for Taiwan.

108 weekly flights
Under a pact signed last month, the mainland will open 63 ports and Taiwan will open 11 harbors for direct cross-strait shipping. Weekly flights between the sides will total 108, supplemented by 60 monthly cargo flights.

The new transportation links mark a major step forward in business ties Taiwan and the mainland, begun amid great fanfare in the early 1990s, but long limited by political tensions. Before Ma took office in May, direct flights across the strait were limited to Chinese holidays, and ships had to stop briefly at the Japanese island of Ishigaki.

Taiwanese businesses had pushed for years to end the ban on direct links. The new arrangements will save costs and generate new business as both Taiwan and China feel the pinch of the global economic slowdown, said Chiang Pin-kung, head of Taiwan's semiofficial Straits Exchange Foundation.

"This will contribute greatly to our economic development," said Chiang, who signed the air and shipping pacts with his Chinese counterpart, Chen Yunlin.

Taiwan's government said the links will save shippers $36 million a year, while annual savings for air travelers should amount to $90 million. The latter figure reflects the end of the old requirement for travelers to change planes at a third point — typically Hong Kong.

Still, some Taiwanese remain skeptical of the economic impact of the new links, pointing to the lower than expected number of Chinese tourists visiting the island, and the tough conditions for Taiwan-based mainland investors in the midst of the worldwide economic slowdown.

Taiwan imposed the ban on regular links six decades ago. Former President Chen attempted to end it but failed to strike a deal with the mainland because of its deep distrust of him.

In Beijing, Xu Lirong, executive vice president of the China Ocean Shipping Group Company, said the direct shipping links will cut the cost of the company's related freight business by 30 percent.

Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying it would "bring new vigor to economic and trade ties" between the two sides.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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