BEIJING -- In a gesture of conciliation to President Lee Teng-hui after his resounding election victory in Taiwan, China called yesterday for a meeting between Mr. Lee and its own president, Jiang Zemin, and for opening direct air, shipping and mail links across the Taiwan Strait.
"The door is open," said Shen Guofang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "The obstacles today lie with the Taiwan authorities."
In Taipei, Prime Minister Lien Chan responded by saying Taiwan's leaders wanted to explore a "peace agreement" and a long-term policy of "detente" with China.
Whether the upbeat remarks signaled a turning point in China's struggle with Taiwan, or simply an optimistic rewording of each side's still-divergent positions on Taiwan's future, will only become clear in coming weeks. China has raised the possibility of a meeting of top leaders before.
Yet yesterday's comments appeared to reflect a willingness by leaders of China and Taiwan to reduce the chance of military conflict, which has hovered ominously over the region in recent weeks.
On a day when each side was watching the other carefully, it suddenly seemed conceivable that Beijing and Taipei could resume talks about expanding civilian ties that were suspended nearly a year ago, an idea that looked impossible a few days ago.
Beijing has been raining insults on Mr. Lee for weeks, casting his efforts to raise Taiwan's international profile as strivings for independence. It has called him, among other epithets, a two-faced autocrat and a sponsor of organized crime. But yesterday, Beijing dropped the invective.
Neither Mr. Shen, who was quoted by a Beijing-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, nor a commentary by the official New China News Agency criticized Mr. Lee. Instead, they tacitly accepted his victory, which also was reported yesterday in several Chinese government-controlled newspapers.
A meeting with Mr. Jiang, should it ever materialize, would mark a greater policy change for Taiwan than for China. Beijing has long encouraged closer official contacts with Taiwan, though few mainlanders are allowed to visit. Taiwan limits official contacts, but hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese visit China each year.
Yesterday's comments by officials of China and Taiwan, while decidedly friendly in tone, offered no substantive change in either side's positions.
Mr. Shen warned pointedly that China would not drop its option of invading Taiwan should the island's authorities move toward greater independence from mainland China and away from the concept of "one China." Both the Communist and Nationalist governments hew to that concept, even though they have lived apart as rivals since their civil war ended in 1949 and the Nationalists took refuge on Taiwan.
Whether tensions now ease, Mr. Shen said, will hinge on whether Taiwan's authorities pursue or reject a policy of independence. Beijing will not be satisfied with conciliatory statements, he said, but only with conciliatory acts.
Although Mr. Shen did not request specific actions, Chinese leaders have been infuriated by Mr. Lee's attempts to secure a seat for Taiwan in the United Nations and by his visit to the United States last year. A promise not to do either again would certainly be on China's list.
In Taipei, Mr. Lien, who was Mr. Lee's running mate to become vice president, did not raise any specific proposals and took a cautiously optimistic approach toward China's offer.
"On the question of a peace agreement, we are interested in seriously thinking about it," Mr. Lien said. "A lot of preparations need to be done for that.
"We should pursue a policy of detente. I am basically optimistic, but I think it will take time."
Mr. Shen renewed a proposal made by Mr. Jiang in 1995 that urged Taiwan to lift its ban on direct trade, air and shipping ties across the Taiwan Strait, as part of China's efforts to increase Taiwan's contact with the mainland.
"We have never had a positive reaction from the Taiwan side," Mr. Shen said.
A New China News Agency report issued late last night put a positive spin on Saturday's election, declaring that the low vote tally for Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party showed that China's efforts to stop the "Taiwan independence movement" had succeeded.
"Almost all Taiwan people now focus their attention on whether the winners of the election will try to develop relations across the Taiwan Strait," the news agency said. "Taiwan residents share the view that the only way out for Taiwan is to develop relations across the Taiwan Strait."
The report quoted business executives, journalists and academics from Taiwan as saying that Mr. Lee, whom China has accused of changing his mind too often, should "cease to be self-willed or make self-contradictory remarks."
"They maintain that the first thing the newly elected Taiwan leaders must do is to further cross-strait relations," it said.
Mr. Lee did not signal any concessions yesterday but told a crowd of 2,000: "We will seek further development in our mainland relations. We will do it well.
"I know you want stability, and you want to make money. Let's strive together for it," he said to roars of the crowd.
"The past few weeks were a very difficult time. People rushed to buy U.S. dollars and sold their homes as missiles were fired.
"But everything is different today," he said. "We have won a big victory, a victory for democracy."
Pub Date: 3/25/96