TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's presidential candidates said in a televised debate on Sunday they would seek direct flights between their island and China, lifting a ban that hurts local investors who do business in the vast Chinese market.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary. Direct flights are currently banned for security reasons.
But thousands of Taiwan investors have poured about $100 billion into China, where they are lured by a common language, similar culture and lower labour costs as well as a potentially huge consumer market.
In an otherwise acrimonious three-hour debate, both candidates pledged direct weekend charter flights so investors could skip time-consuming Hong Kong and Macau stopovers en route to Shanghai, Guangzhou and other mainland Chinese cities.
Both said they aimed to negotiate weekend flights within three months of taking office on May 20, following the March 22 election. Candidate Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) added that he would push for daily flights within six months.
Talks about the flights, which would also allow up to 1,000 Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan per day, have been stalled for about a year over Beijing's demand that the routes be labelled domestic, upsetting independence advocates, the government says.
"Whether the routes are domestic or international, we can negotiate that," ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh said during the debate.
"Chartered flights can solve time issues for Taiwan investors," he said, suggesting air links could be created with as many as 20 Chinese cities.
His rival said direct flights could turn Taiwan into a Northeast-Southeast Asia transit nexus because of its location.
Television call-in polls showed that viewers found Ma did better in Taiwan's first-ever presidential debate.
(Reporting by Ralph Jennings and Roger Tung; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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