Air links between Taiwan and China will get a dramatic boost today, more than doubling in number, unaffected by a controversial visit to the island by the Dalai Lama, a senior aviation official in Taipei said.
The number of weekly flights will rise from 108 to 270 and, in a significant symbolic move, they will be categorised as scheduled departures, rather than chartered flights, signalling a more permanent arrangement.
The new upgraded air ties, which have been in the pipeline for months, are scheduled to begin just hours after Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, reviled in Beijing as a dangerous separatist, embarks on a controversial trip to Taiwan.
"As far as I know, the regular flights will not be influenced [by the Dalai Lama's visit]," Charles Lin, deputy chief of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, told AFP. He declined to provide details.
The Dalai Lama was due to arrive here late yesterday for a five-day visit at the invitation of local government chiefs from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which favours independence from China.
According to schedules, beginning today five Taiwanese airlines are set to operate 135 flights a week between four local cities and 19 Chinese destinations.
At the same time, a total of nine Chinese carriers will operate 135 trips to the island.
China and Taiwan agreed in talks last year – part of a series of exchanges that has reversed six decades of hostility – to begin direct chartered flights.
The upgraded arrangement taking effect this week is the result of a follow-up agreement reached in April.
Passenger volumes have varied, and at the moment flights between the two sides are 81 percent full on average, the Liberty Times newspaper reported yesterday.
Flights to Beijing and Shanghai are up to 90 percent full, while planes to second-tier cities such as Ningbo in east China sometimes take off with half the seats empty, according to the paper.
Taiwan prepared yesterday to receive the Dalai Lama on his third and most controversial visit, as the island's government scrambled to limit the damage it could cause to warming relations with China.
The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, voted to power last year on a promise to improve ties with giant China, emphasised that the Tibetan spiritual leader's five-day trip was solely to comfort victims of Typhoon Morakot.
"The Dalai Lama has the wisdom to tell what's politics and what's religion," KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung told reporters. "He knows he is here to help but not to increase difficulties."
Even before the Dalai Lama set foot on the island, the KMT dispatched a high-level envoy to Beijing to firm up ties, the Taipei-based United Daily News reported.
The paper did not identify the envoy, but suggested it could be KMT spokesman Lee Chien-jung. Party officials were not immediately available for comment.
The Dalai Lama was invited by members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which favours formal independence from China.
He was due to arrive at Taoyuan International Airport in the island's north on a flight from New Delhi late in the day.
From there, he was expected to head straight south to Taiwan's second-largest city Kaohsiung on a bullet train – the first special departure for any individual since the high-speed rail line was inaugurated in 2007.
Highlighting the sensitive nature of the exiled spiritual leader's visit, officials said an eagerly anticipated press conference in Kaohsiung would not go ahead as planned today.
"The latest information I got [from the organisation representing the Dalai Lama in Taiwan] is that the presser has been postponed," Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu told AFP in the southern city yesterday.
Parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng had called on Mayor Chen, a senior DPP figure and the organiser of the Dalai's trip, to scrap the press event, citing concerns that issues sensitive to China might crop up.
The Dalai Lama, who made a historic first visit to Taiwan in 1997 and went again in 2001, is expected to tour southern areas devastated earlier in August by Typhoon Morakot, which left at least 571 people dead.
President Ma Ying-jeou, under growing criticism over his handling of the typhoon, last week approved the visit by the Tibetan monk, sparking concern that Taipei may put at risk hard-won ties with China.
Although the Dalai Lama is scheduled to return to the area near the capital, Taipei, towards the end of his visit, which lasts until Thursday, there is no plan for him to meet Ma, the president's spokesman Wang Yu-chi told AFP Sunday.
"The trip is based on humanitarian and religious considerations, which should not hurt cross-strait ties," Wang said.