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Warmer tone on China from Taiwan

Taipei officials, in shift, talk of renewing dialogue.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2004


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.

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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.

"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.