Slow boat sails from China to Taiwan

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The Independent Online
The tumultuous courtship between China and Taiwan moved from cold to warm yesterday, with the dispatch of the first ship in 48 years to sail directly from the Chinese mainland to the island of Taiwan.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, while the government of Taiwan clings to the notion that it is the sole legitimate government of China. These rival claims have made normal relations between the two states almost impossible since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

None the less, the rhetoric belies the reality of growing ties between the rival Chinas. The agreement to restore shipping links, if only for transporting goods, marks an important stage in developing bilateral ties.

The initiative for the resumption of the shipping route came from the Taiwan government in May 1995. It has taken almost two years for agreement to reach fruition. In the meantime the Taiwan Strait, which separates the two countries, was transformed into a flashpoint for war as China launched a series of aggressive missile tests in an apparent attempt to influence the outcome of Taiwan's first ever democratic pre- sidential election in 1995.

The tension between the states was as bad as it has been at any time since the early 1970s. But the two governments have remained committed to a pragmatic establish- ment of trading and other ties. The business relationship between the two states has led to the establishment of investments in China by an estimated 30,000 Taiwanese companies, pouring some $30bn (pounds 18.5bn) into the Chinese mainland.

There have also been visits by officials on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and an official body has been established to improve cross-straits relations.

While economic relations flourish, China wages a relentless war to maintain Taiwan's diplomatic isolation and prevents the island's government from establishing any kind of substantive bilateral relationships with other nations.

Taiwan, for its part, is not averse to engaging in activity which provokes China. Last month, Taiwan's President Lee Teng Hui met the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. The Chinese Government is extremely sensitive about matters related to Tibet and regards the Dalai Lama as one of its most implacable foes.

China suspects President Lee is edging Taiwan away from Chinese reunification, a view supported by dissident elements who have left the ruling party to join the New Party, which strongly advocates the reunification of Taiwan and China.

There is a long way to go before this goal can be achieved. More likely in the short term are further moves to forge links between the two states. A direct air route, for example, is under discussion. There are also plans for co-operation in protecting the investments of Taiwanese companies in China.

The return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in July presents opportunities and challenges for Taiwan and China. As matters stand, Hong Kong serves as a neutral transit point between the two states, but cannot remain so. Some Taiwanese institutions will withdraw from Hong Kong, but others will remain, representing the first time that quasi-official Taiwan government bodies have been represented on Chinese soil.