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August 22, 2017

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Taiwan, China sign formal agreement on charter flights, tourism

BEIJING -- Taiwan and China agreed Friday to expand charter flights and tourism, a step toward ending a 59-year break in transport links and a likely harbinger of further progress in ties between the long-estranged rivals.

The pact, signed in Beijing during their first formal talks since 1999, comes one day after Taiwan's representatives said they had reached a consensus with their Chinese counterparts on exchanging permanent representative offices.

Such missions would mark a huge step forward in establishing contacts and mutual trust, although Taiwan's chief negotiator, Chiang Ping-kun, emphasized that officials in Taipei still needed to approve the measure.

"There is still a long way to go for normalization of cross-strait economic and trade exchange," Chiang told reporters following the signing of the transport and tourism pacts.

"There are still many issues to be discussed including expanding weekend charter flights into regular charter flights," Chiang said. Taiwan has banned direct scheduled flights ever since the sides split in 1949 amid civil war.

The expansion of charter flights was a key agenda item for the talks that began Thursday. Those flights are now limited to four annual Chinese holidays and are usually packed with Taiwanese residents on the mainland returning home to visit family.

Newly elected Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou wants to gradually expand the charter schedule and supplement it with regularly scheduled flights by the summer of 2009. His target is to have 1 million Chinese tourists go to Taiwan every year, well above the current level of 80,000.

The agreement signed at a state guesthouse in western Beijing on Friday will allow for 36 charter flights to cross the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait running from Friday to Monday beginning on July 4. Flights will be shared equally between Chinese and Taiwanese airlines, servicing routes between the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Nanjing and Taiwan's capital, Taipei, and seven other cities on the island. Flights would be open to anyone carrying valid documents, a change from the past when they were limited to just Taiwanese and Chinese.

A separate tourism agreement permits up to 3,000 Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan each day for stays of up to 10 days, according to the Straits Exchange Foundation, Taiwan's quasi-official negotiating body of which Chiang is head.

Beijing's communist administration considers Taiwan part of its territory and refuses to recognize the government in Taipei, which means that negotiations must be carried out by semiofficial bodies.

On Thursday the two sides agreed to set up permanent offices in each other's territory for the first time, one of the biggest steps the political rivals have taken to build mutual trust.

There were few details and no time frame given for establishing the offices, which could perform consular functions such as issuing travel documentation.

The agreements mark a victory of pragmatism over politics, with the parties setting aside their ideological differences to strengthen booming trade and investment ties.

In other areas, the sides remain far apart. China continues to build up its military, especially its missile force, to back up its threat to invade Taiwan if the island declares formal independence or refuses demands for political unification with the mainland.

Beijing also fiercely opposes Taiwan's close ties with the United States, as well as Taipei's desire for diplomatic recognition and participation in the United Nations and other international bodies.

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