United front

April 29, 2005

FOR THE FIRST time in 60 years, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan's main opposition party, the Nationalists, will meet today in Beijing. It is a historic moment with the potential to bring about tremendous good or damage to tense relations between mainland China and the breakaway island. However, it is discolored by the most base sort of politics -- the enemy of my enemy is my ally -- and so must be viewed very cautiously.

The last time these political parties met was in 1945, right after the end of World War II, when they failed to negotiate a peace settlement. Four more years of their civil war ensued before the Nationalists were forced to flee to Taiwan, where they held power -- first under martial law and eventually more democratically -- for decades.

But the Nationalists (the Kuomintang, or KMT) have been Taiwan's opposition party since 2000, when Chen Shui-bian, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was elected the island's president. So KMT Chairman Lien Chan's journey to the mainland -- to be followed by a visit from the leader of another opposition party -- must first be viewed in the context of the Nationalists' and Communists' most pressing common ground: mutual hatred for Mr. Chen.

The timing of their meeting, too, is particularly troubling, coming right after China passed a law directly threatening Taiwan with military force if it takes steps to make more official its de facto independence.

The United States -- committed to ambiguous fence-straddling to avoid getting drawn into a war in the Taiwan Strait -- is right to express hope that such cross-strait exchanges are welcome, as the White House put it, if they can lead to peace talks between Beijing and Taiwan's "duly elected leadership," President Chen.

Perhaps the KMT leader will be able to bring home some meaningful concessions. Some very hopeful analysts have likened his trip to President Richard M. Nixon's breakthrough journey to China. If so, rescinding the recently passed antisecession law threatening Taiwan would be an appropriate response by Beijing.

More likely, though, are statements and steps aimed at undermining and isolating their common foe, President Chen back in Taipei.

For the KMT, that may make perfect political sense in the short term, but the party would be wise not to forget that its last united front with the Communist Party -- against Japanese invaders in World War II -- ended with a desperate retreat to and more than a half-century of exile in Taiwan.

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