After nearly 10 years, China and Taiwan hold talks

China and Taiwan are set to hold talks in Beijing, the first meeting between the two sides in almost a decade. The talks are expected to result in direct flights, while sensitive political issues have been shelved for now.



Negotiators from China's arch diplomatic rival Taiwan left for Beijing on Wednesday for the first meeting between the two sides in almost a decade, though sensitive political issues have been shelved for now.


China and Taiwan will talk from Thursday about starting regular, direct flights, banned since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the close of the civil war in 1949, and opening the doors to masses of Chinese tourists.


But there is not expected to be any mention of signing a peace treaty, of the missiles Taiwan says China has aimed at the island or of any of the other much trickier subjects both sides are ignoring in favour of first solving more practical matters.


"Although the schedule sounds simple, the task is very heavy and the significance is also quite heavy," Taiwan's top negotiator, P.K. Chiang, told reporters in Taipei.


"These meeting topics are a starting point, which affects the development of relations between the two sides."


Chiang, who heads a semi-official body set up to talk to China in the absence of formal ties, will meet his Chinese counterpart, Chen Yunlin, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a popular venue for top-level negotiations and meetings.


Chiang's 19-member team, including senior government officials seldom allowed passage to China, are scheduled to sign an agreement on Friday about flights and tourists. They return to Taiwan on Saturday.


China and Taiwan last spoke formally in 1999, before former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui enraged Beijing by describing ties as "a special state-to-state relationship".


China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (KMT) fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.


Yet China, keen to avoid diplomatic rows in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August, is expected to take a conciliatory line this week.


Ties have also warmed considerably after the KMT's China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou won the presidency in March.


There are currently no direct flights between the two rivals except on major holidays, meaning the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese who live and work in China have to make time-consuming flights via Hong Kong, Macau or other third territories.


"People have been waiting for this agreement for at least eight years," Ma said in a speech televised in Taiwan.


But in a measure of the mutual mistrust which still exists, Taiwan's envoy to the United States told Reuters this week that the island was pushing Washington to clear the sale of advanced fighter jets as soon as possible, despite China's objections.


The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, recognising "one China", but remains Taiwan's biggest ally and arms supplier.


Washington, to avoid interfering with the talks, had decided to freeze the processing of some $12 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, the U.S.-based Defense News reported this week.


The freeze would last through the August Beijing Olympics and possibly through to the end of President George W. Bush's term in January, it added.

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