Chen Yunlin, president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), and his entourage arrive in Taipei today and will meet with Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), tomorrow for their second round of talks on cross-Straits relations and a full range of topics about exchanges and cooperation.
The two sides will also sign four agreements on cross-Straits flights, direct shipping routes, postal services, and food security and safety. Chen's trip to Taiwan on behalf of the mainland for talks on cross-Straits affairs is of guiding significance and represents another milestone in the history of the development of cross-Straits relations.
Since 1949, the cross-Straits relations have experienced talks as well as fights through six decades of vigorous tests. The establishment of the exchange protocol between the ARATS and the SEF in 1991 has become an indicator for gauging cross-Straits relations. The ARATS and the SEF have resumed talks since Ma Ying-jeou was elected to the island's top office, and the history of cross-Straits ties turned over a new chapter.
The current visit to Taiwan by ARATS President Chen Yunlin and his entourage is in return to SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung's mainland trip in June and a necessary undertaking to implement institutionalized talks between the two sides. This is the first time ever for the head of ARATS, the top mainland envoy, to set foot on the island.
Chen's Taiwan visit is a predestined step in the development of cross-Straits relations and a natural result of the emphatic push by popular will in Taiwan.
On March 22 this year, Ma Ying-jeou won the election with promises to improve cross-Straits ties and push forward the development of Taiwan-mainland economic relations.
Several opinion polls in Taiwan have demonstrated the majority of the Taiwan public supported the Chen-Chiang talks in Taipei. Among them the one conducted by the "Mainland Affairs Council (MAC)" found 65 percent of the respondents were in favor of the Chen-Chiang talks.
That Chen's visit to Taiwan has not been affected by the tainted milk incident or the mob attack on ARATS Vice-President Zhang Mingqing during his Taiwan trip last month signifies that mutual knowledge and understanding between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits have advanced to a new level. At least a quarter of the public in Taiwan sides with the opposition on every issue the many-faceted community faces today. The fact that cross-Straits exchanges are continuing despite some unexpected incidents and extreme actions by a few ill-advised people means cross-Straits exchanges will not stop because of objections from certain individuals or political parties.
Chen Yunlin's Taiwan visit is a natural result of the development of cross-Straits ties. Taiwan residents made 4.62 million visits to the mainland in 2007, an increase of 4.86 percent from the year before. And, as of the end of last year, the mainland had recorded more than 47.03 million arrivals by Taiwan residents since such exchanges resumed in 1987.
Meanwhile, over 320,000 visits by mainlanders to Taiwan were recorded last year, 31.66 percent more than the number in 2006. And, as of the end of 2007, mainland residents had made more than 1.86 million trips to Taiwan since the island reopened its door to them since the late 1980s.
Today the two sides of the Taiwan Straits have realized direct chartered flights on weekends.
As for economic exchanges between the two sides, Taiwan businesses had made 75,146 investments on the mainland by the end of 2007 with more than $45.6 billion already in place. In the past 30 years of cross-Straits exchanges, the mainland has become the top trading and export partner, the third largest import source, No 1 recipient of investments by Taiwan businesses, top tourist destination for Taiwan residents and the place Taiwan residents contact most frequently by phone and mail. Taiwan, meanwhile, is now the mainland's No 7 trading partner, the fifth largest import source and the seventh export market in terms of total value.
The economic interdependency between the two sides of the Straits has been growing in the past 30 years as the Taiwan residents' emotional attachment to the mainland continued to deepen everyday. Taiwan's development is now inseparable from the mainland, and the mainland's development needs Taiwan. It has become a cross-Straits consensus that the ARATS and the SEF must step up exchanges and cooperation for the common good of people on both sides.
On New Year's Day 1979, in its Open Letter to Taiwan Compatriots, the National People's Congress proposed the establishment of "three direct links" across the Taiwan Straits and called for cross-Straits exchanges in economy, science, culture and sports.
After years of efforts, cross-Straits exchanges have made significant progress, but the "three direct links" have yet to be fully established. In the absence of direct flights and shipping across the Taiwan Straits, air and maritime shipping companies on both sides of the Straits have to spend a lot more money, time and energy resources transporting huge amounts of cargo and close to 5 million travelers a year via a third place.
With the "three direct links", according to estimates by some Taiwan business people, direct surface shipping can save three to 21 hours each time and about NT$840 million ($25.47 million) a year; while airlines should be able to spend NT$3 billion less a year than they do now. Leaders of Taiwan's air and maritime shipping industries as well as heads of the seven major business and industrial associations have all expressed their strong desire to see the "three direct links" opened across the Straits.
During his Taiwan visit, Chen will discuss with his counterparts at the SEF such issues as weekday chartered passenger flights, chartered cargo flights from both sides of the Straits, direct sea shipping, straightening of flight routes, new routes for two-way cross-Straits direct flights, cooperation between postal services of the two sides and food safety for both sides. This is a very important step toward opening the "three direct links" across the Taiwan Straits, contributing to advancing the development of cross-Straits relations.
Chen's current Taiwan trip follows the principle of economy ahead of politics, the easy ahead of the difficult and progressing in a steady and orderly manner, and aims to reach agreement on a set of issues through pragmatic discussion. It is another important step toward constructing a framework for peaceful development across the Taiwan Straits.
In addition to working talks and signing of agreements, the ARATS and the SEF will also discuss issues concerning finance, industry and shipping during Chen's stay in Taiwan. The talks and discussions may prove instrumental for the two sides to shift their focus from the "three direct links" to the construction of a framework for peaceful development across the Taiwan Straits with an eye on effectively dealing with the global financial crisis.
The author is a researcher of the Beijing Union University.
(China Daily 11/03/2008 page4)