China pushes for direct charter flights to Taiwan

/ Source: The Associated Press

China appealed to Taiwan on Wednesday to allow direct flights to the mainland for the Lunar New Year, pushing for expanded travel ties that the self-ruled island worries would jeopardize its security.

The two sides had limited charter flights across the Taiwan Strait for the holiday in 2003 and none last year, despite booming trade ties and more than $100 billion in Taiwanese investment on the mainland.

“We hope to realize this goal,” said He Shizhong, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office economics bureau. “We really hope to get a positive response from Taiwan.”

Direct air links have been prohibited since China and Taiwan split during a civil war in 1949. Many Taiwanese businesses and tourists want an end to the ban, but their government worries that Beijing could use the airline flights for military reconnaissance.

The communist mainland considers Taiwan its territory and has threatened to invade if it pursues formal independence.

Travelers between China and Taiwan now have to stop at a third point, usually Hong Kong.

Negotiations for direct flights are usually stepped up ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday or Spring Festival — the year’s busiest travel season — when residents from both sides visit relatives across the Taiwan Strait.

“We hope to realize the direct charter flights in the coming Spring Festival in order to meet the need of Taiwanese businessmen and Taiwan compatriots,” He said at a regular press conference. “If Taiwan shows sincerity on the issue, it will not be a problem to realize direct flights this year.”

Taiwanese opposition politicians met Monday in Beijing with Chinese officials who appealed for direct airline flights for the new year.

The visit, which was not officially authorized by the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, was the first of its kind by politicians instead of airline officials.

The issue has been complicated by the lack of official ties between the two governments, which have not had any high-level meetings since the 1990s.

The Taiwan government said Monday that it was pleased with the mainland’s “positive response.”

Taipei on Wednesday welcomed the latest statements from Beijing, and said it was hopeful that more talks would solve the remaining problems.

“There is a high degree of consensus, and the rest is not a problem, through negotiations we can find a formula acceptable to both sides for the rest,” Taiwanese Cabinet spokesman Chen Chi-mai told reporters.

In 2003, several Taiwan flights picked up hundreds of Taiwanese from Shanghai — but Taiwan barred Chinese airlines, citing security concerns. Last year, China would not follow that practice, insisting that Chinese airlines should also be involved. Taiwan refused.