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China Hosts a 2nd Taiwan Party Head

Visits Raise Hopes for Breakthrough

By Philip P. Pan and Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page A10

BEIJING, May 5 -- China extended its campaign to woo public opinion in Taiwan on Thursday by welcoming a second opposition party leader from the island, less than a week after hosting the leader of the opposition Nationalist Party in a historic visit.

James Soong, head of Taiwan's People First Party, arrived in the western city of Xian for a nine-day tour of the mainland that is expected to include a landmark meeting with President Hu Jintao in Beijing next week.

The series of conciliatory gestures by China has raised hopes for a breakthrough in the long diplomatic standoff across the Taiwan Strait. With its new posture, it has succeeded in doing what it could not do with years of military exercises: present itself to the Taiwanese people as a reasonable neighbor, if not a credible partner for unification.

China's sharp shift in strategy -- replacing threats with engagement -- has already begun to alter the political landscape in Taiwan. A little more than a month ago, hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese marched to protest China's new anti-secession law, which authorizes the use of force to block Taiwanese independence. But now, the Taiwanese public appears to be gripped by what local news organizations have dubbed "China fever." People are delighted by the offer from Beijing to give Taiwan two pandas as a gesture of friendship and are debating the prospect of closer ties with the mainland.

In a sign of the changing political dynamic, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has angered supporters who favor formal independence from China by endorsing both Soong's trip and the visit by the Nationalist leader Lien Chan, which ended Tuesday. In remarks published by local news media, Chen seemed to suggest that he, too, was willing to set aside his differences with Beijing.

While declining to say specifically that he wanted to visit the mainland, Chen described the trips by his political rivals as "curtain openers" and said "the most important and brilliant act has yet to come." He added that while he once believed it would take a long time for China and Taiwan to resume direct talks, "we can now predict that some things may arrive ahead of time."

The conventional wisdom among analysts here and in Taiwan is that the Chinese government has not overcome its deep distrust of Chen. These analysts said the recent charm offensive was designed to sow division in Taiwan and corner Chen by undermining support for his pro-independence policies and boosting his political rivals, Lien and Soong.

"Beijing doesn't want to talk to Chen Shui-bian," said Lo Chih-cheng, the executive director of the Institute for National Policy Research in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital. "Hu has a three-year plan: Constrain [Chen's] ruling party and wait for somebody else . . . to get elected."

But other analysts said Hu had pushed through a more flexible Taiwan policy after satisfying hardliners in the Communist Party by adopting the anti-secession law. The analysts said Hu had concluded that waiting for Chen's second term to end in 2008 before resuming talks with Taiwan could backfire, because that would allow the island to continue its political drift away from China.

Such a strategy could also lead Chen to adopt more confrontational tactics and trigger a crisis in cross-strait relations, they said. By engaging Chen, on the other hand, Beijing can make immediate progress toward its goal of binding the island to the mainland with economic and transportation links.

"If you deal only with Lien and Soong, you are just appealing to half of Taiwan's population," said Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "Anything Lien or Soong does is just symbolic. Substantive gains for China will only be achieved through direct negotiations with Chen."

Sheng, who traveled to Beijing earlier this week, said he left the sessions convinced China had has changed its strategy. "They're seriously considering opening the door to Chen," he said.

A senior Taiwan specialist in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the leadership had decided to work with Chen under certain conditions, in part because it had concluded that the president might be interested in engineering a dramatic breakthrough in cross-strait relations as his political legacy. Under Taiwan's constitution, Chen cannot run for a third term.

Top Chinese leaders have stated several times in recent months that they are willing to meet with all political figures in Taiwan "regardless of their past rhetoric and actions," as long as they accept that the mainland and Taiwan are part of "one China." The specialist said the wording was crafted with Chen in mind.

But if Beijing is willing to overlook Chen's record, it has shown little flexibility on its demand that he accept the "one China" principle as a condition for talks. On Tuesday, a senior Chinese official working on Taiwan affairs repeated the demand, adding that Chen must also stop all pro-independence activities and scrap his party's pro-independence constitution.

Chen has repeatedly rejected such demands, and analysts said it would be politically impossible for him to meet them now. Similarly, it could be dangerous for Hu, a relatively new party chief, to retreat any further from China's traditional Taiwan policy.

Taiwan's top mainland affairs official, Joseph Wu, said in an interview that his government would be following Soong's visit to the mainland closely. "His position is not too far from that of the president, and if he is well-received, then that indicates the possibility of a political dialogue," he said.

Goodman reported from Taipei.

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