Warmer tone on China from Taiwan

Taipei officials, in shift, talk of renewing dialogue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Four months after national elections that returned an ardent Taiwanese patriot to the presidency - deeply disappointing China and raising tensions in East Asia - Taiwan is adopting a creatively conciliatory approach to the mainland. It is reducing anti-China rhetoric and backing off provocative promises for a new constitution. Dyed-in-the-wool advisers to President Chen Shui-bian speak of going to the mainland for talks, inconceivable months ago.

Mr. Chen, grazed by an assassin's bullet on the eve of a bitterly fought election this spring, is adopting a more moderate policy towards China to de-escalate tensions, high-level ministry sources here say - something urged strongly on Chen by the US administration and now being cautiously welcomed by Beijing.

In what seems like an abrupt reversal for Taiwanese leaders who earned their stripes in opposing China, senior officials are talking about restarting formal dialogues with Beijing, setting up military confidence-building measures like phone hotlines to the People's Liberation Army, and taking up "direct links" that allow exchange across the Taiwan Straits.

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"It is a completely new horizon, as far as I can see," says Andrew Yang, director of the China Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. "I think Chen may have taken some advice from Washington."

Having won a second term against the old ruling Kuomintang on a platform emphasizing "Taiwanese identity," and having weathered a contested election, Chen officials seem to exude a greater confidence about the next four years.

Perhaps the chief change is a quiet decision by Chen not to pursue a promised new constitution by 2006. The process would have included a national referendum and a final document by 2008 - something intolerable for China, which threatens military action should Chen take steps toward formal independence. China's military chief, Jiang Zemin, underscored that stance to visiting US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice Thursday, saying that China will not countenance independence, and calling Taiwan "the most sensitive key issue in Sino-US relations."

Since Chen's March election, anxiety levels in China have been high because of the assumption that Chen would try for a new constitution - hoping to use the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a cover to declare independence.

"There is no 2006 agenda, no 2006 referendum on the Constitution," says Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "There has been a lot of confusion about this, and I'd like to clear it up."

Mr. Wu says he would like to meet with Beijing counterparts. "That would be a significant breakthrough," he says. "But it's not likely in the current political atmosphere inside China."

So heady is a conciliatory spin in Taipei that talk of high-level visits to the mainland are in the wind. Beijing has never allowed a core member of the pro-independence circle into the country before. But Chiou-I Jen, the new chairman of the National Security Council and Chen's political strategist, could visit Guangdong as early as next week, according to Mr. Yang. This visit could not be independently confirmed.

"Chiou's visit is very important as a way to smooth hurdles to possibly reopening a dialogue," Yang says.

As Mr. Wu outlined in an interview, Taiwan will hold a constitutional convention of senior scholars across the political spectrum as early as next January. The group will not create a new constitution but amend the old one. Ten areas are expected to be discussed, including government structure, presidential and legislative elections, human rights, and military recruiting. In a significant omission, the group will not take up the most volatile issues - a new flag, or borders - that relate to a separate Taiwanese identity and sovereignty.

"The amendment process will be so extensive that it will be a like a new constitution," says Wu. "But no sovereignty issues will be on the table. What we have is a slow building up of a normal country using normal means. It is a further step of ... democratic consolidation."

Since March, tensions have been high, with China conducting military exercises and Taiwan pointing out its purchases of high-tech weapons from the US. Still, senior sources here say that the US is increasingly involved in efforts to foster a better atmosphere between the two - including formal talks by the end of Chen's term.

Currently, talks between Beijing and Taipei are blocked by Taiwan's unwillingness to accept China's requirement that talks only take place once Taipei agrees to Beijing's interpretation of the "one China" principle.

"We want a dialogue with no preconditions, that is what I hope to help carry out in the next four years," says Taiwan's new foreign minister, Tan Sun (Mark) Chen. "We do want to reduce tensions. But we also have to say that it is not easy for us to provoke problems.... We have no forces."

Hostilities between Taiwan and China date to the civil war on the mainland between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. By 1949, Mao had driven Generalissimo Chiang to Taiwan - where, until the late 1980s, Taiwan was run as a military dictatorship that retained claims as the true ruler of China. By the late 1990s, however, a new opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, had swelled in size on the basis of speaking for the broader public and as a native party that sought a Taiwanese identity independent from China. The KMT was made up largely of 1949 mainland Chinese or their descendants, a minority based largely in Taipei.

For China, the strategic island of 23 million has long been sought as the last needed territorial achievement on the road to eventual regional and global preeminence. Unification is taught to children like an evening prayer; to give up that goal is viewed as something that would undermine party legitimacy.

Chinese leaders assumed, when Chen won the presidency in 2000, that he was a flash in the pan, and that he would lose in 2004. Though Chen's victory margin was only 30,000 votes this spring, his being returned to four more years is something Beijing is only now getting used to. China has also taken note of a shift in the KMT, which now portrays itself as a "Taiwan identity" party.

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