China, Taiwan Sign Landmark Flight Deal

China and Taiwan signed a landmark deal on Friday to launch regular flights between the long-time rivals, limited for now to weekend charters, as politics was put aside in favor of practicalities.


Apart from special holidays, there have been no regular direct flights across the Taiwan Strait since 1949, when the defeated Nationalists fled to the island amid civil war with the Communists.

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled and democratic Taiwan ever since and has pledged to bring the island under its control, by force if necessary.

But the the election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who won by a landslide in March on pledges to boost the local economy by improving trade links with China, has suddenly warmed ties between the two sides.

"This is good for Ma Ying-jeou because he wants to deliver in his first 100 days," said Joseph Cheng, political science professor at City University of Hong Kong. "Beijing is eager to win the hearts of the Taiwan people."

The first flights will start on July 4 and Taiwan media said the first Chinese tour groups to Taiwan would start arriving from July 18, two key election pledges of China-friendly Ma.

As many as 3,000 China tourists, the number Ma first proposed, could come to the island per day, Taiwan media said.

China's Xinhua news agency said service would include 36 return flights for every weekend, from Friday to Monday, and the number would increase according to demand.

Mainland and Taiwan airlines would operate 18 flights each.

Talks between China and Taiwan had been broken off for almost a decade, with Beijing refusing to deal with pro-independence then President Cheng Shui-bian.

"The good momentum of cross-Strait relations development is hard-won and we should cherish and nurture it," Xinhua quoted Wang Yi, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, as telling chief Taiwan negotiator, P.K. Chiang, in Beijing.

The talks were conducted by two semi-official bodies in the absence of formal diplomatic links.

Trickier issues, such as a peace treaty formally ending the civil war and the hundreds of missiles Taipei says China has aimed at Taiwan, were not believed to have come up.

Ma hopes letting Chinese tourists visit can boost the island's economy, while opening direct flights will save time and money for the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese who live and work in China and now have to fly via Hong Kong or Macau.