03/16/2009, 00.00
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First cruise ship docks in Taiwan in first direct tourist link with mainland

Direct cruise ship lines open as cross-strait relations improve. Still contrasts remain. Taipei is set to cut army size but wants to buy US F-16 fighter jets and. It also wants Beijing to repeal “anti-secession” law which gave legal backing to military invasion.
Taipei (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Cruise ships have begun to sail directly to the island from the mainland as a part of improving relations between the two shores of the Taiwan Strait. But the path towards détente still has its pitfalls.

Luxury liner Ocean Mystery (pictured) arrived at Keelung port following a two-day cruise from Shanghai, with 1,600 passengers on board, many of whom are visiting the island for the first time. Well-wishers set off firecrackers and performed traditional dragon dances as the ship docked.

Taiwanese officials hope a significant increase in the number of mainland tourists could help shore up the island's economy, which contracted 8.36 per cent in the final quarter of last year amid the global economic downturn.

Mainland China is especially important since it is Taiwan’s main partner with cross-strait trade worth about US$ 130 a year.

Whilst neither side can completely trust the other, experts note both want better relations. One consequence is Taiwan’s decision to cut troops by about 16 per cent over the next five years, in part as a streamlining measure and in part in response to a perceived lower-level threat from the mainland.

Since the 1970s Taiwan had maintained a policy of readiness to contrast any threat that might come from the mainland. 

Tensions dropped following the election in May 2008 of Kuomintang leader Ma Yingjeou. Unlike his predecessor Chen Shuibian, a strong advocate of Taiwanese nationalism, Mr Ma is in favour of better relations with China.

At the same time Taiwan still wants to buy US-made F-16 fighter jets, saying that its air force is inadequate compared to the mainland’s, only 177 km away on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan has made this request for the past 12 years but the US government has always declined.

Conversely, Beijing has called on the new Us president, Barack Obama, to stop selling weapons to Taiwan altogether.

Last Saturday, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the island's top mainland policy planning body, also insisted that the Mainland’s “anti-secession law is unacceptable to Taiwanese people and it does not fit the spirit of promoting peaceful development in cross-strait relations.”

Beijing adopted the law four years ago amid mounting tensions with Taiwan. Under the law the Chinese government is authorised to use force against the island if the latter moves towards independence.

De facto independent for decades the island for Beijing is still a rebel province and is opposed to its recognition as an independent nation.

Tony Wang, Taiwanese presidential office spokesman, said the law was "unnecessary", adding that most Taiwanese people preferred the status quo to independence.

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