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TAIPEI - DIRECT daily flights between China and Taiwan begin on Monday, the latest step in rapidly improving relations between the island and the mainland.
The official hostility that has marked relations for decades has been melting away since the election of Mr Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's president earlier this year, and direct transport links are expected to bring the two closer.
'That will mark the beginning of more frequent civil exchanges and business as the cost of transportation between the two sides will be lowered and travelling time cut,' said Mr Lo Chih-cheng of Taiwan's Soochow University.
'Hostilities between the two sides will also be tempered,' he said.
China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to invade if the island, which split from the mainland after a civil war in 1949, ever declares formal independence.
The pro-independence rhetoric of former president Chen Shui-bian angered both China and the United States, Taiwan's leading arms supplier. But Chen has now been indicted for corruption, and Mr Ma's pro-China policies are in place.
The latest step comes on Monday, when direct flights - available only at weekends the past few months - become daily. Ships going from one to the other will no longer have to go through a third party's territorial waters.
Taiwan's transportation ministry estimates that local airlines and passengers will save around three billion Taiwan dollars (S$133.9 million) a year, and shipping companies will save around half that.
Mr George Tsai, political science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, says the direct links will 'kick-start' the process of a full normalisation of relations between China and Taiwan.
'Once closer links are in place, they could hardly be stopped or retracted, no matter who becomes the next president,' Mr Lo said. 'And once that happens, Taiwan will not be able to get out of framework of 'One China'.'
The 'One China' policy regards Taiwan as part of China. It is Beijing's official policy, and Chinese authorities regularly complain when Taiwan's leaders make visits to other counrtries.
The warming ties with the mainland, however, are not without controversy in place where anti-China sentiment is still strong among many.
When Chinese envoy Mr Chen Yunlin visited Taiwan last month to sign the new transport link agreements, massive protests dogged his trip at every turn.
Violent clashes between police and protesters injured more than 110 people.
Many fear Mr Ma's race to improve relations with China is simply selling out the island to its powerful neighbour.
'The direct flights certainly have political implications,' Mr Lo said.
'Sungshan airport is for domestic flights and no foreign airlines are allowed to use it. Then why has the government opened it to Chinese air carriers?' Mr Lo said. 'To Beijing, the direct flights are domestic routes.'
Talks on direct flights had been stymied under the former pro-independence government.
Mr Lo rejects the government's claims that Taiwan has more to gain economically from the flights and says that Beijing will benefit more.
'While the flights take more Taiwan tourists and investors to China, the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Taiwan is much lower than the targeted 3,000 per day,' he said. -- AFP