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China sets conditions for new talks with Taiwan

BEIJING – Two days before departing for a visit to the United States, President Hu Jintao declared Sunday that China and Taiwan should resume long-severed official discussions as soon as possible to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Hu’s statement came in a televised meeting with Lien Chan, the former leader of Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party. In that context, Hu seemed to be emphasizing China’s willingness to reduce tensions and negotiate with Taiwan if the island’s independence-minded president, Chen Shui-bian, is voted out of power in elections scheduled for 2008.

Ma Ying-jeou, Lien’s successor as Nationalist Party leader and its putative presidential candidate, also has stressed the need to reopen negotiations with the mainland and improve relations with practical steps, such as loosening trade restrictions and establishing direct airline and mail connections. As a result, the Chinese government has high hopes Ma will be elected over the candidate of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party, according to Chinese analysts close to the government.

“Only by opposing and checking Taiwan’s independence forces can we eliminate the biggest threat harming peaceful and stable development of ties across the Taiwan Strait,” Hu said. China and Taiwan, he added, should “resume talks on an equal footing as soon as possible.”

The Bush administration repeatedly has called on China to establish contact with Chen. But China has refused to deal directly with the Taipei government since 1999, when then-President Lee Teng-hui, who also sought independence, said contacts between the mainland and the self-ruled island should be understood as “special state-to-state” relations.

Since Chen was elected in 2000 – defeating Lien then and again 2004 – official contacts have been frozen. But Lien visited the mainland one year ago, re-establishing ties between the Nationalist and Communist parties for the first time since 1949.

The Chinese government, which regards Taiwan as a province, has vowed to reunite it with the mainland, using force if necessary. Although that remains China’s stated policy, Hu’s government has shifted emphasis from reunification to preventing formal independence. As part of that change, it has made several gestures to improve its image among Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants, including an offer during a cross-strait trade forum Saturday to lower tariffs on Taiwanese fruit and fish exports.

The shift has drawn China nearer to U.S. policy, which holds that the status quo should be maintained until a peaceful solution can be worked out. In the process, officials and analysts noted, China has come to rely on the United States to prevent Chen from taking any decisive steps toward his dream of independence.

Hu plans to bring up the Taiwan question in his talks Thursday with President Bush. In particular, they said, China wants Bush to promise Hu that he will make sure Chen does not alter the Taiwanese constitution in a way that moves Taiwan toward de jure independence.


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