By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
BEIJING, April 26 -- The head of Taiwan's Nationalist Party came to China for history-making talks with Communist Party officials Tuesday, the first Nationalist leader welcomed here since Mao Zedong's forces drove Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland in 1949.
The arrival of Lien Chan, the party chairman, and his delegation in Nanjing in eastern China marked the start of an eight-day trip designed to foster friendly contacts and lower tensions in the long standoff between Beijing and Taiwan. In addition to visiting historic sites, Lien was to hold substantive talks with President Hu Jintao in Beijing, discussions likely to result in a communique urging steps to improve the atmosphere across the Taiwan Strait.
"We're finally taking a historic step forward," Lien said in brief remarks when he arrived. "Let us work hand in hand to achieve the goals of peace and stability."
The Nationalist Party and the Chinese government appeared eager to lay aside past conflicts and get along even while disagreeing over the self-governing island's permanent status. Each side was showing flexibility as a way to undermine the elected Taiwanese leader, President Chen Shui-bian, and discourage the island's 23 million inhabitants from supporting his confrontational style in pushing toward independence.
For the Beijing government, analysts said, Lien's visit was an opportunity to show a friendly face and ease tensions created by China's passage last month of a bill that codified a long-standing threat to use force if Taiwan seeks formal independence. In that light, China's news media treated the visit as a major event, broadcasting Lien's arrival live and splashing details on the front pages of the state-controlled newspapers.
Based on the disappointing showing of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party in December's legislative elections, Chinese leaders have concluded that many of his supporters are uncomfortable with the way he has dealt with the mainland, according to a Chinese specialist with ties to the government. Seeking support among those doubters, he explained, the Chinese government has made several gestures to lower the temperature.
One was the invitation to Lien, worked out during a visit by one of his lieutenants three weeks ago, shortly after passage of the controversial anti-secession law. Others included facilitating exports of Taiwanese fruit and vegetables to the mainland and offering to negotiate more direct charter flights across the Taiwan Strait for family visits and cargo shipments.
China also has invited James Soong, who heads Taiwan's People First Party in an opposition alliance with the Nationalists. He is scheduled to visit May 5 and also is likely to be accorded a meeting with Hu.
The People First Party has advocated reunion with China under negotiated conditions. That makes it a favorite of Beijing, which has long contended that Taiwan is part of China and must rejoin the mainland. The Nationalists, who lost power to Chen in 2000, also traditionally sought reunion under certain conditions. But they have played down that subject in recent years as separatist sentiment grew among Taiwan's voters.
For Lien, the high-profile visit to China represented an opportunity to show Taiwanese that he and his Nationalist Party are more able than Chen to lower tensions and prevent war. However, the trip also was a political gamble, a senior diplomat here said, because some Taiwanese could view Lien's friendly contacts as a betrayal of democracy in Taiwan, which twice has voted for Chen as its president.
"There are risks and dangers" to the trip, said George Tsai of the Institute for International Relations at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.
Before departing, Lien had said that his talks with Chinese leaders would be on a party-to-party basis and that he would not try to negotiate in the name of Taiwan's government. Based on those assurances and a telephone conversation Monday, Chen gave his blessing to the visit.
But Lien intends to seek a declaration of some kind after the talks with Hu to define the fruits of his visit for the Taiwanese people, according to a reliable account of his plans. Such a communique, though not a government document, would boost his claim that the Nationalists, if they regained the presidency, would be more able to assure peace for Taiwan.
Nanjing, 125 miles northwest of Shanghai, was a logical first stop for Lien, since it was the capital of China under the Nationalist Party from 1928 to 1937, when it was occupied by the Japanese, and again from 1946 to 1949, when Chiang's forces fled to Taiwan. The party's founder, Sun Yat-sen, is buried in a hilltop tomb in Nanjing; Lien was scheduled to visit the tomb Wednesday.
On arrival, Lien emphasized this historical significance, saying he planned to show the deepest respect to Sun, who led the uprising in 1911 that ended the Qing Dynasty and who also enjoys a place in the Communist pantheon.
"You can say the distance between Taiwan and Nanjing is not far," Lien said, "but when the plane landed, we had covered nearly 60 years, from this visit to our last presence here. I'm sorry I couldn't meet you sooner."
Special correspondent Tim Culpan in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.