In a last-ditch attempt to salvage talks with Beijing, Taiwan's top China negotiator said today that Taipei has not abandoned its "one China" policy and still seeks eventual reunification with China.

China immediately rejected the statement by Koo Chen-fu, chairman of the semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation, and returned unopened a letter Koo had sent to his mainland counterparts.

Koo's remarks were much anticipated since Taiwanese officials raised hopes in several interviews this week that Koo would be able to calm the roiling diplomatic waters between Taipei and Beijing. Tension skyrocketed earlier this month following a statement by Taiwan's democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, that Taiwan sought "special state-to-state" relations with China. Lee's statement infuriated Beijing because it implied that Lee wanted to create a state separate from China.

China's immediate rebuff of Koo's approach indicated that Beijing probably would cancel scheduled talks between Koo and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Daohan. Western diplomats in Beijing said China's plan would be to ignore Taiwan's entreaties until at least April, when Lee is set to step down.

Koo's position also underscored a failure of a broad diplomatic offensive launched by the Clinton administration to push Taiwan to modify its demand that China treat Taiwan as an equal in negotiations over their future relationship.

"Yes, we upset the American apple cart but you've got to understand this is serious business for us," said a senior Taiwanese diplomat. "This is a matter of life and death."

Koo said China and Taiwan should treat each other as equal partners in the negotiations--something Beijing has always rejected. He also said Taiwan would only seriously consider reuniting with China once China embraced democratic reforms--a distant prospect.

"As one side is allowed to express its position, it should also accept that the other side express its position as well," Koo said. "Neither should deny the existence of the other."

Koo reiterated Lee's view on the "one China" question--a view that has infuriated Beijing. "What we see as 'one China' is something for the future since China at present is divided and ruled separately by two equal sovereign states in existence at the same time, hence a special state-to-state relationship," Koo said.

"That each of the two sides presents a different interpretation of its position in consultations is merely a necessary stage in the process of seeking common ground," Koo said.

Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province, separated from the Chinese motherland since 1949. It denies the legality of Taiwan's democratically elected government; it won't conduct direct negotiations with Taipei and has spent years attempting to isolate the island diplomatically. So far, that program has been very successful.

As such, any move in Taiwan to assert its independence is, in Beijing's eyes, a major step backward from China's plan to absorb Taiwan on China's terms. In a statement, Beijing's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits said Koo's statement was "a grave violation of our 1992 agreement to uphold mutual recognition of the one-China principle and we reject it."

Actually, in the 1992 agreement, the two sides agreed to disagree about how to define "one China." Beijing asserted that it alone was the capital of one China. Taiwan said that both Taiwan and China were equal parts of "one China.""