China and Taiwan cross the divide: Highest-level talks since Communists' 1949 victory

TAIWAN and China will sit down in a Singapore hotel today for the first high-level talks since the Communist Party took control of the mainland in 1949.

The meetings will be between the heads of two 'unofficial' organisations, discussions will stick to 'practical and technical' subjects, and the agreements that will emerge from the two days of talks have already been carefully scripted.

But the talks are still seen as hugely symbolic. 'Historically it is important,' said one Taiwan National Assembly member. 'It is the first time that high-level people from both sides are meeting. Finally they can sit down and talk. It doesn't matter what they talk about.'

The talking comes at a time when the political divide across the Taiwan Strait is as deep as ever. Its symbolism is all the more potent because the relationship between the two sides is still governed by form as much as substance.

Earlier this month, for instance, a mainland domestic airliner was hijacked to Taipei. In keeping with Taiwan's strict rules about no direct mail, telephone or transport links with the mainland, the pilot was asked to sign an agreement that he would land in Hong Kong before returning to southern China. Once airborne he simply routed the plane through Hong Kong airspace, and flew home, one of the rare 'direct' flights between Taiwan and China.

In more antagonistic times, such an event might have been enough to derail today's meeting. But this time both sides have been flexible in their wish to open up a high-level path of communication, spurred by the changing nature of their day-to- day relationship - there was more than dollars 7bn ( pounds 4.6bn) of bilateral trade in 1992, Taiwanese interests now have around dollars 10bn of investments on the mainland, and there are about 1 million visits a year from Taiwan to the mainland.

All this is routed through third countries, but the scale of these private links has created a pressing need for a channel of communication to sort out legal and practical issues.

The two team leaders both have excellent contacts with their respective governments, although the 'unofficial' nature of the talks means that they do not have the status of government-to-government (as Taiwan would wish) or party-to-party (as Peking wants) negotiations.

The Taiwan representative is Koo Chen-fu, 76, the billionaire businessman chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation who also sits on the standing committee of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). From Peking comes Wang Daohang, 78, a former mayor of Shanghai, who is chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (Arats).

It is the first time the heads of these bodies have met. Political issues will not be voiced; nor will there be any mention of the long and difficult road towards any talk of reunification. Instead, there will be arrangements for regular meetings between representatives of the two bodies. Formal agreements will also be signed on compensation for lost (indirect) registered mail between the two sides, and on each recognising the other's verification of legal documents, such as marriage certificates. There will also be discussion about protection for Taiwanese investments on the mainland, and on dealing with bottlenecks in Taiwan's return of illegal immigrants from the mainland.

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