TAIPEI, TAIWAN, FEB. 22 -- Taiwan's new president Lee Teng-hui, striking a self-assured tone, today reaffirmed the commitment of his predecessor to move Taiwan away from an authoritarian regime.
Lee also said the Taiwan government would study the possibility of sports and cultural exchanges with communist-led mainland China in the course of a review several months from now. But he emphasized that contact with the mainland would have to be on a private basis, with no change in Taiwan's policy of no official contact, negotiation, or compromise with the communists.
In a nearly two-hour-long press conference, Lee fielded questions with self-confidence and occasional touches of humor. He offered to make public reports on his medical check-ups if people were concerned with the state of his health and boasted that he played quite a decent game of golf every day.
His predecessor, Chiang Ching-kuo, met on occasion with small groups of foreign reporters or editors but never held a press conference on this scale. Lee appears to want to introduce a more open style of communication with the public than that of his predecessor. The news conference was attended by 126 journalists, including 57 representatives of foreign news organizations.
Lee was sworn in as president six weeks ago following Chiang's death Jan. 13. He was then appointed, to the surprise of some observers, acting chairman of the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, making him the first representative of the native-born Taiwanese majority to rule the island in 39 years. The Kuomintang has been dominated by a minority of mainland-born Chinese who fled to Taiwan when the communists took power in 1949.
Until recently, it was widely assumed that Lee was a compromise candidate for president who would serve as a figurehead until a stronger leader emerged from among the mainlanders. But in the short time he has been in office, Lee has moved quickly to consolidate his power.
Today's display of self-confidence should also reassure the United States, which not only has strong trade ties with Taiwan -- the island is Washington's fifth largest trading partner -- but also looks to Taiwan as a center of stability in a strategic part of the world.
Taiwan is located approximately 100 miles off the Chinese coast along an important sea lane and a few hundred miles from two major U.S. military bases in the Philippines.
China has proposed a plan for reunification with Taiwan that would allow the island to retain its capitalistic system. But Beijing has also reserved the right to intervene with force if the breakaway island shows signs of instability.
Chinese officials are thought to be uneasy about Lee's assumption of power because, unlike his mainland-born predecessor, he has no close ties with the mainland.
Lee told reporters, however, that it was a mistake to conclude that he does not understand the mainland. He said he has "a deep concern" for the mainland. But he said Taiwan would continue to reject reunification with the mainland as long as Beijing insisted on principles that stress Marxism and the leadership of the Communist Party.
Lee said that 40 years of development on Taiwan showed that "the most appropriate political ideology is not socialism, and it is not communism, but rather, a free and democratic society."
He did not rule out completely reunification with the mainland, but he urged the communists first to renounce the possibility of using military force to reunite the Chinese on the two sides of the Taiwan strait.
"I sincerely hope that the issue concerning relations between both sides of the straits can be handled by new concepts," said Lee in a statement that came closer than most of his remarks to offering an olive branch to the communists.
But questioned on the possibility of allowing direct trade with the mainland, Lee said "we cannot make a decision on this issue at present."
Asked about trade with Japan, Lee predicted that "the economic center of gravity" of the world will gradually shift to the Pacific region in the years to come. He said that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan play a pivotal role in the region. The three, he said, have a total population of about 200 million and currently account for 10 percent of the value of the world's production of goods and services.