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Diplomats hopeful about Taiwan agreement to talk with China

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Foreign diplomats on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are surprised that the Taiwan government has broken a longstanding policy and agreed to hold direct talks with mainland China on the return of a hijacked airliner. Diplomats say the decision could open the way for further contacts, though officials in Peking and Taipei have insisted that the hijacking case is strictly a civil aviation matter.

Taiwan's unexpected offer to meet with officials of China's state airline, CAAC, was announced in Taipei Tuesday. The offer came two days after CAAC sent a second cable urging Taiwan's national airline, China Airlines, to discuss the matter directly -- without involving a third party. As of Wednesday, Peking had not acknowledged Taiwan's reply. Some diplomats speculate the authorities are carefully planning the best way to break what they see as good news to the Chinese public.

Reports from Taipei indicate that discussions could begin in Hong Kong next Monday. Until early this week, China Airlines had agreed only to negotiate the release of the aircraft and crew through the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific airline.

The May 3 hijacking of a Boeing 747 cargo plane, en route from Bangkok, was the first incident in which the pilot of a Taiwan civilian airliner flew to the mainland. Cmdr. Wang Hsi-chueh was one of China Airlines' most experienced fliers. With his defection, he left behind in Taipei a wife and three grown children, and gave up a $4,000-a-month job only a few years before retirement.

The incident was embarrassing for Taiwan, which has held to an unswerving policy of no contact, no negotiations, and no compromise with the mainland communist government. Peking has gained in recent years from a more favorable image under leader Deng Xiaoping, seeming to act reasonably in efforts to end longstanding hostility and bring Taiwan under its control.

Commander Wang's defection has aroused curiosity here about what kind of man would switch sides after serving Taiwan's Nationalist government loyally for more than four decades.

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