Meeting in Beijing has symbolic import

President of China talks with leader of Taiwan's opposition Nationalists

April 30, 2005|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEIJING - With a handshake in the Great Hall of the People, the complicated relationship between China and Taiwan took a symbolic turn toward the optimistic yesterday as Hu Jintao, the head of China's Communist Party, met Lien Chan, the chairman of Taiwan's Nationalist Party.

A Chinese leader has never before sat down for talks with a top Taiwanese politician. And their words - each side calling for peace and confidence-building - sounded encouraging.

The complication is that Lien, unlike Hu, is not the leader of his country. Lien lost the last Taiwanese presidential election in 2004 to Chen Shui-bian. He is visiting China not as an official representative of Taipei but as an out-of-power political leader hoping to generate momentum for his party and to put President Chen on the defensive.

Since Chen took office five years ago, relations with China have soured. He has encouraged Taiwan to develop an independent political identity, and China has reacted by accusing him of quietly orchestrating a move toward Taiwanese independence.

China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province and has threatened to invade if it were ever to declare officially that it is breaking away. In March, China passed an anti-secession law that codifies this threat.

Against this backdrop, both China and the Nationalist - or KMT - Party have something to gain by holding discussions. The KMT can claim to be the party most likely to preserve the peace, while Beijing can get satisfaction from isolating and causing political damage to the leader it loathes.

The Taiwanese still appear to be sorting out what they want. With most younger people not feeling any affinity toward the mainland, from which Taiwan split in 1949, many identify with Chen's pro-independence sentiment. But the Taiwanese also don't want confrontation with China, preferring to maintain the ambiguous status quo in which Taiwan operates as an independent country but doesn't publicly identify itself as such.

In Taipei yesterday, the words of peace between the KMT and Beijing were rejected by Chen's government, which predicted that the meeting would not ease tensions because Lien failed to persuade China to recognize Taiwan's sovereignty or to reduce its missile threat. China has 600 or more missiles pointed at Taiwan.

"The Chinese Communist authorities once again demonstrated that they were insincere about improving ... relations, and our government highly regrets it," the Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

What Lien and Hu accomplished, even if it does not last, was to create a new atmosphere, in which each side pledged to work toward reconciliation.

"I hope our common efforts will help move cross-strait relations in the direction of peace, stability and development," Hu told Lien.

Lien responded, "We absolutely should avoid confrontation and collisions. What we want is conciliation. And dialogue."

After their meeting, the two sides issued a statement promising to work together to restore negotiations on a peace deal, but Lien acknowledged that it could be only a suggestion because his party is not in power.

"Frankly, whether this can be done depends on whether the governing party will take responsibility," Lien said at a news conference. "The Nationalist Party as an opposition party can only put it forward as a suggestion."

The two sides' statement - more a KMT party platform than a real agreement - called on China and Taiwan to seek more economic cooperation and promote peace.

It also discussed allowing Taiwan's participation in international activities. But that could happen only if Taiwan accedes to China's demand that Taiwan acknowledge itself is a part of China. The document referred to a 1992 understanding in which both sides would agree to a one-China concept but would disagree on the meaning of the term.

This negotiating concept fell out of favor under Chen Shui-bian, and it seemed unrealistic that he would embrace it in reaction to Lien's trip.

Another Taiwanese opposition politician, James Soong, is scheduled to visit China in May, perhaps putting more pressure on Chen to show he is capable of a gesture toward reconciliation.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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