Across the strait


TOMORROW, IN advance of the Lunar New Year, the first nonstop flights between China and Taiwan in 55 years will take to the air, ferrying thousands of island businessmen home for the Chinese world's biggest holiday and back to their more than $100 billion worth of investments on the mainland.

The flights -- only for a three-week period and only for Taiwanese working in China -- are a breakthrough in cross-strait relations. Holiday charters flew in 2003 but had to make an intermediate landing in Hong Kong to maintain the island's policy of no direct transportation ties to the mainland. With other barred links now largely a fiction -- direct mail and phone calls are routed through Japan and money transfers through Hong Kong -- pressure for the next steps, direct shipping and travel year-round, likely will mount.

At the same time, the limited nature of this step forward -- after years of stalled negotiations -- highlights the dangerous tightrope Taiwan walks these days between the rapidly increasing integration of its economy and the mainland's, and islanders' growing support for de jure independence.

Even as Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has repeatedly shaken the delicate cross-strait status quo over the last few years, island businessmen have cast their lot with China. A million Taiwanese now live and work on the mainland. The island's shoe industry fled long ago to China; now its semiconductor plants are going. The two sides have become economically symbiotic.

From a U.S. perspective, that growing interdependence -- and the New Year's flights -- should be viewed positively if it means that America is less likely to get drawn into defending the island from the invasion that China still prepares and threatens.

Would a nation as reliant on outside capital as China attack one of its main sources? The threat is real, no matter how much economic good will flows across the 100 miles of water between the mainland and the island.

Beijing still has 600 missiles trained on Taiwan and continues to expand its capacities to project military power. And mainland officials yesterday stressed that, despite the New Year's flights, cross-strait relations remain "grim." But even short of war, some Taiwanese analysts reasonably fear that the island will end up being held hostage by its economic integration with China, and forging more direct links would only bring Taiwan more under Beijing's domination.

It didn't get much notice, but Beijing this week announced an ambitious, long-term plan to connect the mainland and Taiwan with a bridge or tunnel.

For now, that's much more of a fantasy than a reality, politically and in terms of the engineering. But given that the phenomenal pace of economic integration with the island provides China with a tangible basis to hope that it may be able to eventually absorb Taiwan without a destructive attack, you can't blame Beijing for dreaming -- and planning.

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