China Calls For Greater Civilian Ties With Taiwan

In a gesture of conciliation to President Lee Teng-hui after his resounding election victory in Taiwan, China called Sunday for a meeting between Lee and its own president, Jiang Zemin, and for opening direct air, shipping and mail links across the Taiwan Strait.

“The door is open,” said Shen Guofang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The obstacles today lie with the Taiwan authorities.”

In Taipei, Prime Minister Lien Chan responded by saying that Taiwan’s leaders want to explore both a “peace agreement” and a long-term policy of “detente” with China.

Whether the upbeat remarks signal a turning point in China’s struggle with Taiwan or simply an optimistic rewording of each side’s still-divergent positions on Taiwan’s future will become clear in coming weeks. China’s leaders have raised the possibility of a meeting of top leaders before.

Yet, Sunday’s comments appear to reflect a willingness by leaders in both China and Taiwan to reduce the chance of military conflict, which has hovered ominously over the region in recent weeks. On a day when each side was watching the other carefully, it suddenly seemed conceivable that Beijing and Taipei could resume discussions about expanding civilian ties which were suspended nearly a year ago, an idea that looked impossible a few days ago.

Beijing has been raining insults on Lee for weeks, casting his efforts to raise Taiwan’s international profile as a striving for independence. It has called him, among other epithets, a two-faced autocrat and a sponsor of organized crime. But Sunday, Beijing cut the invective.

Neither Shen, who was quoted by a Beijing-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, nor a commentary by the official New China News Agency criticized Lee. Instead, they tacitly accepted his victory, which also was reported Sunday in several Chinese government-controlled newspapers.

A third round of the war games that Beijing recently has been carrying out near Taiwan in an explicit attempt to intimidate the island’s voters and which were scheduled to end today, went unmentioned.

Lee had hinted that after the election he would make a visit that could surprise everyone to a world capital. It was not clear if he was referring to Beijing or to Washington or to somewhere else.

A meeting with Jiang, should it ever materialize, would mark a greater policy change for Taiwan than for China. Beijing long has encouraged closer official contacts with Taiwan, though few mainlanders are allowed to visit there. Taiwan limits official contacts, but hundreds of thousands of Taiwan’s residents visit China each year.

Sunday’s comments by officials of China and Taiwan, while decidedly friendly in tone, offered no substantive change in the two sides’ positions.

Shen warned pointedly that China would not drop its option of invading Taiwan should the island’s authorities move toward greater independence from mainland China and away from the concept of “one China.”

Both the communist and Nationalist governments hew to that concept, even though they have lived apart as rivals since their civil war ended in 1949 and the Nationalists took refuge on Taiwan.

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