China, Taiwan begin historic talks

November 4, 2008 12:00 am

, TAIPEI, November 4 – Taiwan and China began historic talks here Tuesday aimed at bringing the formerly bitter rivals closer economically after almost 60 years of cross-strait hostility.

Beijing’s representative Chen Yunlin and his local counterpart Chiang Pin-kung shook hands as they took their seats at Taipei’s Grand Hotel for the discussions that are expected to ink deals potentially worth billions of dollars.

"Now we are very close to agreement, and I hope we will reach a consensus this afternoon on shipping, air transport, postal services and food security," said Chiang, who head’s Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF).

Late Monday, the two sides announced they had agreed to triple direct passenger flights to 108 per week and expand services to a total of 21 Chinese cities.

The deals will introduce cargo flights, with up to 60 round trips per month crossing the 180-kilometre- (112-mile-) Taiwan Strait that separates the island from China, officials said.

Chen, head of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, told Tuesday’s talks opening that the dialogue would build on progress made in June in thawing the relationship between the former arch foes.

"In June the two sides signed agreements which opened a new page in the relationship and marked a milestone in the development of cross-strait ties," he said.

"We will make our best efforts to satisfy the needs of the Taiwanese people on a mutually beneficial basis."

He said the agreements "will promote civil exchanges, economic cooperation to enhance the welfare of the people on both sides".

The deals are expected to be signed by both parties Tuesday afternoon.

Aside from the four main issues, Chen has said boosting tourism would also be discussed. The June talks agreed a daily quota of 3,000 Chinese tourists to Taiwan, but China still restricts travel to the island.

SEF vice chairman Kao Koong-lian told reporters Chen had invited Chiang to continue the dialogue in China early next year.

The bilateral talks would be expanded to include crime-fighting, further cooperation on food safety, and quarantine of agricultural products.

They would also focus on issues of mutual concern during the current global financial downturn, including banking, investment protection and tax, said Kao.

Opponents of the deals have warned of a Chinese stealth takeover of the island, which has been estranged from China since the end of a civil war in 1949, won by Mao Zedong’s Communists.

Chen became the most senior Chinese official to visit the island in almost 60 years when he arrived Monday to start the five-day visit, marked by massive security and widespread protests against closer ties with Beijing.

Relations between the two sides have been on an upward trajectory since Ma Ying-jeou became president earlier this year, ending eight years of rule by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

DPP supporters oppose Chen’s visit and have accused Ma of undermining the island’s sovereignty in its efforts to move closer to China.

Chen is expected to meet Ma on Thursday, in what is one of the contentious appointments in his schedule.

DPP officials say that how Chen addresses Ma, as "president" or simply "mister", will send a clear message of Beijing’s intentions towards the island, which it regards as a renegade province to be reunited by force, if necessary.

Despite assurances that political issues will not be discussed this week, local television has said Ma could ask Beijing to remove missiles, believed to number up to 1,000, targeting the island.


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