Jason Yuan, Taiwan's top diplomat in the U.S., spoke at a luncheon hosted by Georgia Tech's Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy. He's pictured here with Bobby Dodd Stadium in the background.

Until last year, it took eight hours to fly from Taipei, Taiwan, to Shanghai, China‘s east coast commercial capital.

Business travelers in Taiwan who wanted to enter the mainland by air had to go west through Hong Kong, making a daylong excursion out of a flight that would have taken just over an hour nonstop.

All that changed on Dec. 16, when for the first time after six decades of separation, Taiwan and mainland China started operating widespread direct commercial air routes. 

Now, the 80-minute Taipei-Shanghai flight is quick enough for a businessperson to leave Taiwan in the morning, finish work in Shanghai and get home in time for dinner, said Jason Yuan, Taiwan’s top government official in the U.S.

Mr. Yuan is the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Washington, a position similar to an ambassadorship.  The U.S. officially views self-ruled Taiwan as a part of China, not a separate state.

This week, the two sides signed a variety of agreements in the Chinese city of Nanjing, upping the number of two-way flights from 108 to around 270 and paving the way for cooperation on financial and crime issues. 

The direct air links are just one component of a renewed posture of openness and cooperation between Taiwan and the mainland under President Ma Ying-jeou, Mr. Yuan said in a speech at the Georgia Institute of Technology in March.

Mr. Ma, a Kuomintang (or Nationalist) party politician, won the presidential election by a landslide last March against the Democratic Progressive Party of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. 

Mr. Chen was an outspoken advocate of Taiwanese independence, which ruffled relations with the mainland.

Mr. Yuan said that Mr. Ma has made it clear that he always wants to be the president – not the governor – of Taiwan and that there will be no “reunification” with China under his watch.

Opponents say that Mr. Ma has sacrificed too much Taiwanese sovereignty. Mr. Yuan said he has simply changed the tenor of the relationship, putting controversial political matters on hold to focus on simpler and more mutually beneficial issues like trade and tourism.

Sixty-three Chinese ports have opened to Taiwanese goods, and all 11 of Taiwan’s ports have reciprocated the action, saving millions of dollars in unnecessary shipping costs, Mr. Yuan said.

Chinese tourists have flocked to Taiwan since the governments relaxed travel restrictions and started air links, although they haven’t helped Taiwan’s economy as much as expected.

Despite the relatively warm recent exchanges – the Nanjing meetings were the third round of talks in a year – Taiwan is partially hindered in its economic dealings with neighboring countries because of its relationship with China, Mr. Yuan said.

The U.S. is reticent to sign a free trade agreement with Taiwan for fear of how an agreement would affect relations with the mainland.

To combat this problem, Mr. Ma is pushing a controversial economic cooperation framework agreement (or ECFA) with China to lower tariffs and establish a protocol for dealing with these other international partnerships.

Mr. Yuan said the mainland is open to the pact and that the deal should be ironed out quickly.

“If we don’t have any resentment from the other side, and we are willing to do that, why not sign it and be able to have closer ties with our neighboring countries?” he said.

Answering his own question, Mr. Yuan noted that Mr. Ma’s administration faces the task of “educating” the public, opposition party and legislators on the agreement’s benefits, a task that could prove difficult.

Mr. Yuan traveled to Georgia to take part in the annual Macon Cherry Blossom Festival.  He also acknowledged that the Georgia House of Representatives passed a resolution March 4 commending Taiwan on “its recent progress in the growth of its democracy and relations with the United States.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...