Taiwan Wants To Fly Direct

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Ahead of next year’s election, here’s a look at the stances of Taiwan’s presidential candidates on cross-strait relations from TIME’s Taipei-based contributor Natalie Tso:

Taiwan’s presidential candidates are starting to tout their China policies. Opposition contender Ma Ying-jeou says he’ll start direct flights within a year, if elected. (Currently, what could be an 80-minute direct flight between Taipei and Shanghai is an over 6-hour haul through a third city, because of a nearly 60-year old ban on direct transportation between Taiwan and China.)

Foreign and local businessmen have been lobbying for direct flights for years, and even 70% of the populace, according to a government survey late last year, said they wanted air links “opened conditionally.”

Even President Chen Shui-bian wanted direct flights. Shortly after his election, in a July 31, 2000 press conference, he said he wanted the three links (ie direct transportation, postal and trade links) “by the end of the year.”

But we should give Chen some credit. There are now direct charter flights for holidays four times a year, as well as for cargo, medical, and humanitarian purposes. What’s stalled talks, Chen says, is that China won’t budge on the sovereignty issue “unless Taiwan surrenders.” Chen told the candidates Thursday to not entertain any fantasies about dealing with China.

So, what could ruling party contender Frank Hsieh bring to the table? He is the most moderate of the ruling party politicians and thus the most likely to achieve any success with China. Some analysts say he is a more flexible and savvy negotiator than Chen, but he’d have to do some pretty fine dancing to skirt the one-China issue. So far, just last Sunday, Hsieh said he favors direct flights, but “any such talks must be staged under the conditions of equity and dignity.”

Ma plans to rely on the “one China, two interpretations” angle, (a consensus that supposedly happened at a meeting between the two sides in 1992. Chen’s administration claims there was no such agreement). Ma explained his China policy in an interview with TIME last year. His hurdle may be convincing the Taiwan public he’s not selling out, if he lets China think Taiwan recognizes one China.