TAIPEI/HONG KONG - A Hong Kong official predicted a new era of ties with Taiwan, during a rare visit to the island on Monday, in what analysts say is a Beijing-sanctioned attempt to normalise diplomatic relations after a decade.
Hong Kong's Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing flew to Taipei on Monday in the first visit to the island by a senior Hong Kong official since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
"Now that I've come to Taiwan, I expect in future, Taiwan and Hong Kong relations will rise to a new development level," said Tsang upon his arrival in Taiwan as the head of a delegation to the World Buddhist Forum in Taipei.
Hong Kong and Taiwan have long held close cultural, trade and economic ties - with Taiwan flights and cargo often routed via Hong Kong en-route to China.
But the two sides have had awkward diplomatic relations over the past decade, given the influence of Beijing which tried to limit high-level contact under Taiwan's previous anti-China president Chen Shui-bian.
Political analysts said Tsang's visit while a small step, was a Beijing-sanctioned move aimed at normalising political relations between the two sides under the new China-friendly Kuomintang administration of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.
Since Ma took office in May, he has eased tension with Beijing through trade and transit deals although military distrust lingers.
"Relations across the Taiwan Straits have much improved and while we are only making very small steps ... apparently this has been cleared by Beijing," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at Hong Kong's City University.
"(Hong Kong) had (previously) adopted a very conservative attitude and they simply toed the Beijing line, and of course during the Chen Shui-bian administration era, being politically correct meant having nothing to do with Taiwan," said Cheng.
Tsang said he didn't rule out the possibility of meeting officials on the sidelines of the Buddhist forum.
In previous years, top Taiwan officials have made key visits to mainland cities like Beijing and Macau, but apparently avoided Hong Kong, though analysts said the situation could now change. --REUTERS