China, Taiwan open door to direct trade

Symbolic voyages raise hopes for thaw

January 03, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - For the first time since the end of the Chinese civil war more than a half-century ago, Taiwanese officials and citizens sailed to rival China yesterday to establish direct trade between the mainland and two outlying Taiwanese islands.

One hundred ninety Taiwanese from the fortress island of Jinmen arrived just before noon in the port city of Xiamen in China's Fujian province where police officers and a crowd of about 200 residents watched.

About the same time, another Taiwanese delegation that included nearly 500 pilgrims from the nearby island of Matsu arrived in the Fujian capital of Fuzhou. The pilgrims had come to pay homage to Matsu, who serves as the patron goddess of fishermen in Taiwan and southeastern China.

The short voyages - which Beijing did not oppose - were symbolic acts that could eventually lead to a lessening of tensions over the Taiwan Strait, one of the most politically volatile bodies of water in the world. At the same time, though, they fell far short of the mainland's demand that both sides establish direct air, trade and postal connections - commonly referred to as "the three links." Nor did the visits address Beijing's insistence that Taiwan, which operates as a de-facto independent country, clearly state that it is a part of China.

"They just want to alleviate tension," said Wu Nengyuan, chief of the Institute for Taiwan Studies at the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences. "Personally, I'm not that optimistic about the relationship between the two sides."

Under Taiwanese regulations, all cargo, air passengers and mail must pass through Hong Kong or a third country before entering the mainland, a cumbersome process that adds hours to flights and huge sums to transportation costs.

Taipei has resisted establishing the three links with China for security reasons and fear that Taiwan would become absorbed by the mainland economy - the world's seventh-largest behind Italy.

Taiwan recently lifted its ban on links between China, Matsu and Jinmen, known to Westerners as Quemoy. The islands are just off the mainland's southeastern coast. The shift seeks to legitimize a thriving smuggling trade with China's Fujian Province while offering an olive branch to politicians in Beijing.

The dispute between the mainland and Taiwan is a persistent concern internationally because it could lead to a war in East Asia between two nuclear powers, China and the United States.

After the Communist victory in 1949, the defeated Nationalist troops fled China for Taiwan, about 100 miles from the mainland. While Taiwan has developed into a boisterous democracy, the Communist Party insists that the island is still a part of China and has vowed to reunify by force if necessary. Such a move could draw in the United States, a longtime supporter of Taiwan.

While some China watchers thought yesterday's visits might lead to improved relations across the strait, they noted that the "mini-links" between the mainland and the Taiwanese islands would not have a major economic impact.

Under Taiwanese regulations, only companies registered in Fujian can conduct business with the islands, and Chinese tourists heading to Taiwan must travel as a part of a group and obtain permission from the government in Taipei.

"From a Taiwanese point of view, it's a very limited move," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong. "I don't think it's going to involve much trade and many travelers."

Despite the continued ban on direct links between China and Taiwan, the two sides have become increasingly intertwined economically over the past decade. Taiwan is now China's fifth-largest trading partner and second-largest source of imports, according to China Daily, the government-run English-language newspaper.

Jinmen, which is a little more than a mile from Fujian Province, is a powerful example of how economically close the two enemies have become. Chinese boats land on the beaches of Jinmen at low tide to sell peaches, garlic, tea and pears. Jinmen fishermen motor out into the Taiwan Strait, where they buy fish from Fujian that are later sold for a profit in Taipei.

Jinmen County Commissioner Chen Shui-tsai, who led the delegation to Xiamen, has estimated that one-third of Jinmen's $175 million annual economy comes from smuggling.

When Chen and the others from Jinmen landed in Xiamen yesterday, they were met by Kang Changcai, director of the local Taiwan Affairs Office. The delegation planned to visit city officials. The group's reception marked a major improvement in relations from a few decades ago.

Jinmen is probably best known to Americans for surviving a massive artillery barrage in 1958, when Mao Tse-tung's army spent nearly a month and a half raining down more than 400,000 shells on the island. Although the atmosphere in Jinmen is much more relaxed now, pillboxes still serve as traffic circles and land mines continue to line the beaches to prevent amphibious invasion.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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