Taiwan, Chinese Negotiators Sign Agreement on Flights, Tourism བོད་སྐད།

Negotiators from China and Taiwan have signed a deal to launch regular, direct flights between the longtime rivals. The agreement was signed in Beijing Friday by representatives from two semi-official bodies, who held their first formal meeting in nearly a decade. Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.

Friday's signing ceremony was broadcast live on Chinese television.

The two signers were Chen Yunlin, chairman of the mainland's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, and Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation.

After inking the deal, the two men smiled broadly as they exchanged pens and toasted with champagne.

The accord calls for regular weekend charter flights between Taiwan and mainland China, starting July 4. Airlines from both sides will carry a total of 36 flights initially.

Since 2003, there have only been direct charter flights for special Chinese holidays.

The agreement also allows for more mainland tourists to visit Taiwan, a measure aimed at building confidence between the two sides.

Taiwan and China have been split ever since the Nationalists fled to the island in 1949, after losing a civil war to the Chinese Communists. China considers the island part of Chinese territory and has vowed to use force, if necessary, to reunify it.

Taipei-Beijing relations over the past decade have been strained. Beijing perceived then Taiwanese president Chen Shui bian as being pro-independence.

Chien-Min Chao, politics professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, says relations improved "tremendously" after the election of a new president on the island in March. He said people in Taiwan hope improved cross-Straits relations will have a positive effect on the economy.

"Chinese market is huge. Everyone realizes that, and better relations might not only provide new opportunities and economic benefits, from Chinese people visiting Taiwan, but also a more open policy might also bring more investment from the international financial community," he said.

The resumption of formal talks between China and Taiwan also is of interest in Washington. In recent years, U.S. officials have expressed concern over heightened tension across the 160-kilometer wide Taiwan Strait, including the threat of hundreds of Chinese short range missiles pointed at the island.

The Washington Post reports that a long-anticipated, multi-billion dollar sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan has been held up. UCLA political science professor Richard Baum says he thinks it is because Washington is interested in reducing military tension in the region.

"And the Bush Administration now seems to be telling Taiwan to go slow with arming itself with American weapons, at least until after the November [U.S. presidential] election and the summer Olympics," he said.

He says it is in everyone's interest for both China and Taiwan to continue negotiations. As long as both sides are talking, he says, they have less time to think about fighting.