Taiwan, China Launch Direct Shipping Links, Ending Longtime Ban

A Taiwanese jetliner departed Monday for the Chinese commercial capital of Shanghai to start a new era of direct air and shipping services with rival China, formally ending a nearly six-decade ban on regular links.

Relations have improved between the once-bitter rivals since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May and moved to reverse the pro-independence policy of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian.

China has reacted warmly and although the mainland still claims sovereignty over the self-governed island, both have agreed to set aside thorny political disputes to focus on trade. The two sides signed a pact last month to open up the direct links.

Prominent politicians planned to attend inauguration ceremonies Monday in Taiwan and China for a move widely expected to boost trade and economic integration of the two rivals, which split amid civil war in 1949.

The first Taiwanese ships were scheduled to leave from Kaohsiung and Keelung harbors for Chinese ports about noon Monday. Mainland companies were to sail vessels to Taiwan from Shanghai and Tianjin.

Monday also marked the start of cargo flights between the two that will number up to 60 per month, according to agreements signed Nov. 4.

Daily passenger flights also were being launched, with 16 scheduled for Monday, in an expansion of weekend charter flights inaugurated in July.

Early Monday, a Trans Asia Airways jetliner took off from Taipei's Sungshan airport, taking 148 Taiwanese tourists and businesspeople for the 80-minute flight to Shanghai, the airline said.

Taiwan's ERA Cable Station also aired footage of a China Eastern Airline jetliner preparing to depart for Taipei at the Shanghai airport.

The flight time is now cut by an hour because the planes are no longer required to fly south through Hong Kong's airspace, a detour Taiwanese authorities had insisted on for security concerns. Cargo ships were required to stop at the Japanese island of Okinawa northeast of Taiwan.

The direct services will save costs and generate new business as both Taiwan and China feel the pinch of the global economic slowdown, said Chiang Pin-kung, head of Taiwan's semiofficial Straits Exchange Foundation.

"This will contribute greatly to our economic development," said Chiang, who signed the air and shipping pacts with his Chinese counterpart, Chen Yunlin.

With annual bilateral trade at about US$100 billion, Taiwanese businesses have pushed for years to end the ban on direct links across the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait.

In Beijing, Xu Lirong, executive vice president of the China Ocean Shipping Group Company, said the direct shipping links will cut the cost of the company's related freight business by 30 percent.

Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying it would "bring new vigor to economic and trade ties" between the two sides.

Taiwan imposed the ban on regular links six decades ago. Former President Chen attempted to end it but failed to strike a deal with the mainland because of its deep distrust of him.