By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 13, 2005
BEIJING, May 12 -- Chinese President Hu Jintao proposed new diplomatic language Thursday aimed at ending the decades-old state of hostilities between China and Taiwan, in a rare but tentative concession by a Communist leader on one of the most sensitive issues in Chinese politics.
In a joint communique issued after a two-hour meeting in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, Hu and James Soong, a Taiwanese opposition leader, endorsed a new formulation of the mainland government's long-standing position that cross-strait talks can begin only after Taiwan acknowledges it is part of "one China." Under the new language, Hu effectively agreed to open talks if Taiwan accepted the principle of "two shores, one China" while acknowledging that the two sides might differ on precisely what that term meant.
The disputes over wording may appear arcane and trivial to outsiders, but the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait regard them with utmost seriousness and sometimes threaten to go to war over them. At stake in these battles over nouns and adjectives is the definition of the Chinese nation itself, with the mainland defending its claim that Taiwan is part of China and the self-governing island territory struggling to present itself as an independent, sovereign country.
The deliberate ambiguity of the new wording could allow Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, to claim that "one China" refers to the Republic of China -- the formal name of the government in Taipei -- or even to a loose federation of the mainland and Taiwan.
Speaking in a televised interview in Taipei hours after the announcement in Beijing, Chen swiftly rejected the new wording, saying, "China did not make any concessions. It did not come up with anything new," local news media reported.
But Chen appeared open to further discussions, reiterating plans to establish a commission to pursue cross-strait talks. Chen is widely believed to be waiting until after Taiwan holds island-wide elections Saturday before deciding whether to make Hu a counteroffer.
Soong, the leader of Taiwan's opposition People First Party and a former presidential candidate, struck an uneasy alliance with Chen before beginning his nine-day trip here -- his first to the mainland since fleeing to Taiwan as a child before the Communists took power in 1949. His talks with Hu were seen as a test of Beijing's attitude toward Chen's government.
Chinese officials have alluded to a linguistic compromise before, referring to it as the "1992 consensus," after the year in which Chinese and Taiwanese negotiators in Hong Kong first succeeded in opening official cross-strait talks. At the time, both sides agreed to the "one China" principle, but the Taiwanese insisted they interpreted the term differently.
Taiwan later described the arrangement as "one China, different interpretations." Beijing never accepted that definition and instead emphasized that Taiwan had agreed it was part of China.
Thursday's communique represents a concession by the Chinese government because it openly acknowledges Taiwan's assertion that the two sides define "one China" differently. In another nod to Chen, it also gives the formula a new name, describing it as "two shores, one China," or "two sides of the strait, one China."
Chen has rejected the phrase "1992 consensus," arguing that China and Taiwan merely agreed to disagree that year.
Thursday's talks began with a nationally televised handshake between Hu and Soong on a red carpet in the Great Hall.
At a news conference afterward, Soong said he hoped the new language would help the two governments set aside their differences. "We're using 'two shores, one China' now, so there's no need to haggle over past wording," he said.
Hu said after the meeting that "the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations requires both sides to conduct dialogue on an equal footing and to expand their consensus while putting differences aside," state media reported.
The communique still includes references to the "1992 consensus" and the "one China" principle, as well as a section opposing independence for Taiwan, all of which Chen's supporters will find objectionable. In the television interview, Chen also noted that the communique made no mention of the Republic of China or the role Taiwan's 23 million residents should play in determining the island's future.
"It's one step forward, but we have a long way to go," said Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang, a former mainland affairs official in Chen's government who now teaches at Tamkang University in Taipei. "We have new terminology, but the old issues and problems remain."
China passed a law in March mandating a "non-peaceful" response if Taiwan moved toward formal independence. But lately it has been waging a campaign to woo public opinion on the island. The Beijing government hosted another opposition party leader, Lien Chan, chairman of the Nationalist Party, for a historic visit late last month, and it has offered to grant the island trade benefits and send it two pandas as a gesture of friendship.
At the same time, Chen seems to be searching for language that would allow him to open talks with the mainland. In October, he proposed resuming dialogue "on the basis of the 1992 Hong Kong talks." After Beijing rejected that, Chen suggested alternative wording, offering to resume negotiations in March "on the basis of the results achieved in the 1992 Hong Kong talks."
Xu Bodong, director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, which has ties to mainland policymakers, said China was trying to make it politically easier for Chen to retreat from his pro-independence past in the hope that as a lame-duck president he may want to leave a legacy in cross-strait relations.
Xu said the government understood it needed to help Chen "save face" and extricate himself from his past positions. "We can't compromise on our basic principles, but we can make practical, rational adjustments in wording and phrasing," he said. "It's not as important what he says as what he does if the talks resume."
For example, Xu said, the government would expect Chen to move quickly to implement agreements worked out with Lien and Soong, especially one calling for passenger flights between the mainland and Taiwan. Xu said it would even be possible for Chen to visit the mainland later this year.
But Chen has been sending mixed signals about his willingness to alienate supporters who want independence. In an interview earlier this week, he surprised the public by criticizing his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, an ardent supporter of Taiwan independence. But he heaped praise on Lee in Thursday's interview. Similarly, he has both criticized and applauded the visits to the mainland by Lien and Soong.
Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei, said Chen's response will not be clear until after Saturday, when the island elects a national assembly to consider constitutional reforms. Chen's party has been slipping in the polls, and he may be worried about losing more support. "He expressed disagreement with the communique today, but he still left the door open," Sheng said.