Taiwan's decision this week to allow officials of its national airline to conduct unprecedented face-to-face negotiations with their Chinese counterparts comes at a time of a broader and equally sudden willingness to consider political liberalization on the island.
Within the past few days, Taiwan's ruling Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party has announced that, for the first time, opposition forces on the island will be permitted to set up branch offices in several cities. Such offices would be the first step toward establishment of an opposition political party.
In addition, foreign analysts in China and Taiwan say that this week a 12-member committee of high-level Nationalist Party officials has begun discussing such previously taboo topics as the necessity for continuing martial law on the island and the existing ban on new political parties.
Taiwan is now the fifth-largest trading partner of the United States and the 15th-largest trading entity in the world. The island has been under martial law for nearly 40 years and government officials have long maintained that, because of the threat of invasion from the Communist regime on the mainland, allowing the formation of new political parties would be destabilizing.
Bigger Stake for Citizens
"We're all very surprised," said one foreign observer in Taipei. "They (Nationalist Party leaders) are talking about some things and even doing some things. There seems to be a general attempt now to get more people to feel they have a stake in Taiwan. There's been a lot of emigration to the States, and the feeling is that if there were greater democracy, people on Taiwan would have a greater feeling of belonging here."
These analysts emphasize that none of these new developments indicate any change at all in the Taiwan government's fundamental opposition to reunification with mainland China or even to negotiations with Peking's Communist regime concerning political questions.
Even the unusual decision to allow airline officials to discuss the fate of a Boeing 747 cargo jet flown to China by its defecting pilot is being downplayed.
"Everybody on the official side says this is a one-shot deal," said one observer on Taiwan.
First Direct Talks
Nevertheless, the talks, which open in Hong Kong today, do mark the first time that the Nationalist regime has agreed to sanction direct negotiations with Communist officials since the tattered and defeated army of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek fled from the mainland in 1949. The Nationalist regime still claims to be the legitimate government of the Chinese mainland.
A spokesman for the Taiwan government said this week that the aviation negotiations do not mean that Taiwan has abandoned what it calls its "three nos" policy toward China: no negotiations, no contacts and no compromise.
"Our basic policy remains the same," said Charles Chen of Taiwan's Government Information Office. "This is an individual case."
The plane, belonging to Taiwan's national airline, China Airlines, was diverted to Canton from a scheduled landing in Hong Kong on May 3. Besides the defecting pilot, it carried two crewmen, who do want to return to Taiwan.
'An Expedient Act'
One Taiwan source familiar with the government's views termed the decision to negotiate "an emergency action. . . . It was an expedient act, designed to retrieve the China Airlines crew from the mainland."
China had insisted on direct negotiations and suggested it might not release the crew members until these negotiations took place. The Taiwan government thus found itself under considerable public pressure to show some flexibility so that the crew members would not be forced to remain in China.
"Public opinion here was pretty strong that something should be done to get the crew back," said a political observer on Taiwan. "The newspaper commentaries here were virtually unanimous in saying this."
Moreover, Taiwan had some financial incentives for allowing the airlines negotiations, analysts say.
"They couldn't refuse to negotiate if they wanted the plane back," said a Western diplomat in Peking. "This is big bucks."
China Airlines acquired the Boeing 747 cargo plane from a company in Luxemburg last year for more than $60 million.
Observers also say that China Airlines realizes that it will eventually have to talk with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) if it wants to keep its existing flights between Taiwan and Hong Kong after 1997. That is when Hong Kong, now a British colony, will return to Chinese sovereignty.
The closest precedent for the current maneuvering over the plane came in 1983 when a civilian aircraft operated by CAAC was forced from China to South Korea by hijackers who said they wanted to go to Taiwan.
China has no diplomatic relations with South Korea and had never negotiated directly with the Seoul government. Nevertheless, in that case, China sent a ranking aviation official to Seoul to negotiate the return of the plane, its cargo and passengers.
Hong Kong Precedent
In recent years, China has pressed repeatedly for talks with Taiwan aimed at eventual reunification. After the 1984 agreement with Britain concerning sovereignty of Hong Kong, China suggested to Taiwan that a similar agreement could be adopted for Taiwan.
The Hong Kong agreement provides for a "one-country, two-systems" solution--allowing the capitalist economy there to continue for 50 years and local Chinese to govern themselves for that period. Chinese officials added that Taiwan, unlike Hong Kong, would be able to maintain its own armed forces.
But Taiwan has turned down these overtures and stuck with its "three nos" policy. In recent years, the only signs of a relaxation in its attitude toward China had been a willingness to tolerate some academic exchanges or indirect trade with the mainland.
When the Nationalist Party's Central Committee met for a plenary session last March, there were few indications of any dramatic change, either in the party's leadership or in its political positions. President Chiang Ching-kuo assured the participants that "we will never compromise with the Chinese Communists."
But the ruling party did set up a special group with a vague mandate to "refurbish the party style, advance democratic constitutional government and consolidate local autonomy." It was that organization which earlier this week began re-examining sensitive issues like the need for martial law on the island.
The Nationalist government's political opponents are known as the tangwai , Chinese for "outside the party." Under existing law, the tangwai is not allowed to call itself a party and does not have the same rights as a political party.
In recent elections, the Nationalists have usually obtained around 70% of the vote on the island, while the tangwai, a loose coalition of groups, has tended to get around 20% to 25%. The remaining votes go to individuals running without any affiliation.