IN an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui yesterday at his inauguration offered to open an official dialogue with the communist government on mainland China. The new flexibility over a 40-year ban on contact with Beijing is the most dramatic sign yet of the easing tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
The Nationalists in Taipei had refused contacts with the regime in Beijing since fleeing to Taiwan after losing a civil war in 1949. Beijing had no comment.
Mr. Lee called for establishing ``channels of communication, and completely opening up academic, cultural, economic, trade, scientific, and technological exchanges to lay a foundation of mutual respect, peace, and prosperity.''
``We hope then, when objective conditions are ripe, we will be able to discuss the matter of our national reunification,'' he said.
But Lee said that before ties substantially improve, Beijing must do three things: promote democracy and a free economy, renounce the use of force against Taiwan, and tolerate Taiwan's efforts to broaden its relations with other countries. In the past Beijing rejected such terms.
Nevertheless, the speech was the first time a Taiwan leader has recognized the existence of the communist government in Beijing and expressed a desire to end the long-standing ``three no's'' policy of no official contact, no negotiations, and no compromise with the mainland.
Lee's speech was an indirect reply to recent suggestions by Wu Xueqian, a vice premier from China, that the Communist and Nationalist Parties hold talks.
Beijing says that the Nationalist government is not a sovereign regime but merely the authority of a renegade province. In contrast, the Nationalists have characterized China as being ``one country, [with] two governments.''
The proposal by Mr. Wu suggested that communist and Nationalist officials could sidestep differing views on sovereignty if they meet as party rather than government representatives. But Lee has rejected such an approach, saying reunification should only be discussed by the two governments on an equal footing.
The tentative rapprochement has left high and dry plans by the ship Goddess of Democracy to broadcast pro-democracy programs to the mainland. Taipei, apparently unwilling to pique the Beijing leadership, has refused to allow the vessel to take on a medium-wave radio transmitter.
The ship's crew sailed the renovated trawler from France to Taiwan to broadcast news, political analysis, music, and comments by exiled Chinese pro-democracy activists. Beijing has issued scathing denunciations of the vessel, calling it a pirate ship on a mission of subversion.
The crew, sponsored by 19 international news organizations, plans to set sail this week for Japan, where it says it hopes officials will allow it to take the transmitter on board.
The cool reception for the Goddess of Democracy by a government that calls itself ``Free China'' is an ironic sign of the warming relations between the mainland and Taiwan.
Business, tourism, and family contacts across the strait have blossomed since the Nationalists lifted martial law in 1987 and eased restrictions on unofficial contacts with the mainland. About 500,000 people from Taiwan visited the mainland in 1989.
Many of those visitors are Taiwan executives. Two-way trade, channeled primarily through Hong Kong, is expected to reach a record $4 billion this year, a jump of nearly 50 percent over 1988, according to official Taiwan statistics. Beijing says the figure will exceed $4 billion.