Taiwan, China agree to exchange offices

Published 6:29 pm Thursday, June 12, 2008

Taiwan and China agreed Thursday for the first time ever to set up permanent offices in each others’ territories as the two sides met for their first formal talks in about a decade, an official with one of the delegations said.

The agreement to set up the offices, which will coordinate continuing contacts, was reached during talks Thursday morning in Beijing, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation said, speaking on routine condition of anonymity. She said a formal announcement would be made later.

The agreement came on the first day of meetings between the foundation and its mainland counterpart, the first formal talks between the sides since 1999.

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Foundation Deputy Secretary-General Pang Chien-kuo told China’s official Xinhua News Agency the offices would “facilitate people’s exchanges and traveling across the Strait.”

The announcement injected a whiff of drama into an otherwise relatively mundane talks agenda that seeks mainly to finalize agreements on charter flights and tourism to build confidence between the long-estranged rivals.

Taiwan’s delegation also planned to discuss what additional help the island could provide for China’s earthquake relief efforts. The talks are scheduled to run through Friday at a state guesthouse in western Beijing.

The 19-member Taiwanese team is being led by Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of the quasi-governmental Straits Exchange Foundation, and includes two vice Cabinet ministers — the highest-ranking Taiwanese officials ever to participate in bilateral talks.

The negotiations should lay the foundation for “a long-term peaceful relationship between the two sides,” Chiang said as the talks opened. “The two sides have … established mutual trust.”

His counterpart, Chen Yunlin, head of Beijing’s semiofficial Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, said the public on both sides was counting on the talks to produce results and alter the often combative tone between the two governments.

“Whether cross-strait relations can improve, depends on whether our negotiations can proceed smoothly,” Chen said.

Beijing’s communist administration, which seized power on the mainland in 1949, considers Taiwan part of its territory and refuses to recognize the government in Taipei, which means that negotiations must be carried out by semiofficial bodies.

For most of the last six decades, ties have been hostile or strained. Both sides have periodically looked for ways to build trust between the governments amid soaring trade and investment.

The sides set up the dialogue mechanism in the early 1990s, agreeing to set political differences aside in favor of boosting economic ties and private exchanges. China backed away from talks in anger over steps by Taiwan to shore up its independent identity. Beijing insists the island is Chinese territory to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

While most Taiwanese oppose political union, many favor closer economic cooperation with the mainland, which has already absorbed more than $100 billion in Taiwanese investment over the past 15 years.

Chiang’s visit is seen as the first step toward fulfilling a pledge by newly elected Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to reinvigorate Taiwan’s economy, in part by hitching the island’s wagon to China’s economic juggernaut.

The 75-year-old economic planner said earlier this week he expected to sign an accord opening the way for 36 charter flights to cross the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait every weekend. Taiwan has banned direct scheduled flights since the 1949 division.

The expanded flights will be enough to shuttle several hundred thousand Chinese tourists to Taiwan every year — below Ma’s target of 1 million, but far above the current level of about 80,000.

Charter flights are now limited to four annual Chinese holidays and are usually packed with Taiwanese residents on the mainland returning home to visit family. Ma wants to gradually expand the charter schedule and supplement it with regularly scheduled flights by the summer of 2009.

An agreement is expected to be signed Friday, after which Chiang was scheduled to meet with Chinese president and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao.

Also Thursday, Xinhua reported Chen had accepted an invitation from Chiang to visit Taiwan later this year. No specific date was mentioned.