Taiwan's Leader Coos At a Reluctant China

Even as he pushes for peace with Beijing, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui has yet to budge from what angered China in the first place.

The Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan and China is likely to remain in political limbo, Western and Taiwanese analysts say, despite Mr. Lee's plan to launch a peace mission to the mainland.

At yesterday's inaugural festivities celebrating his landslide victory in Taiwan's presidential election in March, Lee called for a meeting "with the top leadership of the Chinese Communists for a direct exchange of views in order to open up a new era of communication."

Such a meeting would be the first since the Communists won China's civil war almost 50 years ago. Semi-official talks were held in 1993, but were suspended last year when China launched a series of military exercises. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and worries that the island's seeking more international recognition will lead to its independence.

"In the future ... I would like to embark on a journey of peace to the mainland," Lee told 50,000 cheering Taiwanese.

China had no immediate reaction to Lee's remarks at press time. But Western and Chinese analysts predict Taiwan will have to make more substantial peace overtures before Beijing will respond. On China's agenda are direct communications and transportation links between the mainland and Taiwan. Beijing also wants Taiwan to back off from its campaign to regain membership in the UN, which it lost in 1971.

China is also concerned that Lee, now the first democratically elected president of once autocratic Taiwan, could undertake official tours to the US or Japan, if invited. Before the March election, China launched missile exercises and vilified Lee in an effort to undermine his support and intimidate Taiwanese voters.

"China was looking for something more specific from Lee Teng-hui," says a Chinese foreign affairs analyst. "China distrusts Lee and fears he will continue to try to split the motherland."

"The mainland will not be so satisfied with this speech," concurs Andy Chang, a political scientist at Tamkang University in Taipei. "China will have to be patient and wait for Lee Teng-hui to take concrete actions," Mr. Chang said, predicting the government will initiate legislation to establish direct links in coming months.

Some of Lee's remarks should hearten China, Taiwanese analysts say. The president ruled out independence, labeling it "unnecessary and impossible," and openly backed reunification during the next century. But the president refused to back away from Taiwan's quest for a higher international profile and eventually even UN membership. He pledged to continue "pragmatic diplomacy ... to secure our 21.3 million people enough room for existence and development as well as the respect ... they deserve."

Still, giant China overshadowed the festivities in Taiwan yesterday. Only 10 heads of state from 31 countries that recognize Taiwan attended. Sixteen other governments, including the US and other large democracies, only sent unofficial representatives.

Western and Taiwanese analysts said Lee's proposed peace journey is a dramatic gesture that is premature and glosses over deep-seated problems. In his speech, Lee did not say if he would waive past conditions for such a trip, especially his insistence that he be received in Beijing as president of Taiwan.

Taiwanese analysts say the speech reflects the government's scramble to put mainland relations back on good footing without ending popular efforts to win Taiwan international respect.

"Taiwan doesn't want to be in opposition to the mainland. It wants to open the door of negotiation. But Beijing has shown no willingness to talk," says Charng Kao, a Taiwanese economist.

Reflecting disappointment that the speech lacked major initiatives, Taiwan's volatile stock market yesterday dipped on reports of Lee's remarks. Taiwanese businesses have invested about $20 billion on the mainland, although investment has been slipping since tensions erupted.

"The speech won't give too much encouragement to Taiwanese investors in China. Taiwan will continue to be open to China.... Whether Beijing's policy toward Taiwan will change or not, we don't yet know," said Mr. Charng, who tracks Taiwanese investments on the mainland.

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