TAIPEI, Taiwan --Facing an attempt in the Legislature to pass a referendum on recalling the president, the Taiwanese government unexpectedly announced yesterday that it had reached a deal with Beijing to allow many charter flights to and from mainland China.
The agreement is the most recent of several signs that relations between Taipei and Beijing might be thawing, a change that has occurred as a political crisis surrounding the president, Chen Shui-bian, has deepened.
Chen is known for opposing closer ties to the mainland, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province. His wife, son-in-law and several senior aides face allegations of corruption. All have denied wrongdoing, but the allegations have sent the president's popularity plummeting.
Joseph Wu, the chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council and a member of Chen's Cabinet, announced yesterday morning that Taiwan and the mainland had agreed to allow up to 168 charter passenger flights annually during four public holidays, including Chinese New Year. Chartered cargo and humanitarian flights will also be permitted throughout the year, though each will require individual approval.
Chartered passenger flights had previously been allowed only during Chinese New Year in 2003, 2005 and this year, and were negotiated each year. They were not allowed in 2004 because of a controversy during presidential elections. Chartered cargo and humanitarian flights have not been allowed until now.
Wu said in an interview that the president's political difficulties had not influenced the timing of the agreement. "It is not accelerating the negotiations," he said.
But opposition politicians and academic experts were skeptical that it was a coincidence that the charter flights were announced a day after the Legislature convened for a special session to consider a referendum on recalling the president. They saw the president reluctantly reaching out to Beijing despite a career built on pulling Taiwan politics farther from the mainland.
"Given the fact that his political credibility has suffered from the political turmoil, he is more cautious and more realistic in his approach to the mainland side," said Andrew Yang, the secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a research center here.
Joanna Lei, the deputy whip in the Legislature for the opposition Nationalist Party, which favors closer relations with the mainland, said the president is trying unsuccessfully to distract the public from the corruption allegations.
The allegations involve hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of department store gift certificates and millions of dollars in profits from what is suspected of being insider trading. The corruption issue dominated television news coverage here throughout the day despite the announcement of the charter flights, which had been under negotiation for many months.
"The scandal continues to capture the imagination," Lei said.
Chen, who took office in 2000, has not been accused of wrongdoing. But he has been forced to take several uncharacteristic steps lately.
He announced two weeks ago that he was delegating many of his domestic policy powers to the prime minister, Su Tseng-chang. Although Su belongs to the same political party as the president, the Democratic Progressive Party, he has a reputation of favoring somewhat closer relations with the mainland.
Chen reaffirmed to the United States last week that he would not declare independence from the mainland, seek a referendum on independence or unification with the mainland, push for Taiwanese sovereignty themes in the constitution or change Taiwan's legal name from its current title as the Republic of China.
Wu said yesterday that Taiwan was negotiating with Beijing officials to bring more mainland tourists to Taiwan. Only 173,000 mainlanders came to Taiwan last year while 4.1 million Taiwanese went to the mainland.
Taiwan's Legislature is scheduled to vote June 27 on whether to schedule a national referendum on recalling the president. It will be the first vote in the Legislature on a recall referendum in Taiwan's history.
Even opposition lawmakers concede that in a Legislature fairly evenly split between the president's supporters and opponents, they are likely to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed for a referendum.