President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, in a conciliatory gesture aimed at China's newly consolidated leadership, proposed a fresh start Sunday for long-suspended talks to improve relations and lower tension across the Taiwan Strait.
Chen suggested that China's president, Hu Jintao, might be more flexible in addressing Taiwan's concerns now that former president Jiang Zemin has retired and left Hu in charge of the Chinese military in addition to the presidency and the Communist Party. In that light, Chen declared, Taiwan is willing to resume discussions on the basis of a previous agreement that there is only one China, but that Beijing and Taipei have differing interpretations of what that means.
"We are aware of the transfer of power and personnel reshuffling on the other side of the strait," Chen said in a National Day address. "We hope that, with greater wisdom, both sides can create better opportunities for new development of cross-strait relations."
Chen said his government was willing to return to the artful ambiguity of the 1992 Hong Kong accord as a starting point for improving ties. Renewed contacts, he said, would "seek possible schemes that are not necessarily perfect but acceptable as preparation of a step forward in the resumption of dialogue and consultation."
In the context of Taiwanese politics and Chen's long-standing goal of formal Taiwanese independence, the president's proposal was seen here as a concession designed to improve the atmosphere, lower tensions and refute charges that he is not interested in getting along with the mainland. "This is quite a departure from the position of the ruling party," said Lo Chih-cheng of the National Institute of Policy Research in Taipei.
The Chinese government in Beijing, which has insisted on acceptance of the "one China" principle as a condition for further talks, had no immediate reaction, saying it was studying Chen's proposal. In Washington, however, the State Department hailed Chen's suggestion as a possible avenue toward resumption of discussions.
"We welcome the constructive message conveyed in President Chen's speech, which we believe offers some creative ideas for reducing tensions and resuming the cross-strait dialogue," Darla Jordan, a department spokeswoman, told the Associated Press.
Chen's refusal to accept the "one China" principle has long been cited by Chinese leaders as the main reason discussions on improving ties have been suspended even since before Chen took over in 2000.
The 1992 Hong Kong accord was reached by Chinese and Taiwanese cross-strait specialists under Taiwan's previous government, led by the Nationalist Party. Chen and his independence-minded group, the Democratic Progressive Party, had not previously embraced it, taking a clearer stand that there are two countries, one on either side of the 100-mile-wide strait.
Chinese officials have said repeatedly that they believe Chen is determined to lead Taiwan to independence, no matter what he says at any given moment. Although foreign China specialists have reported hearing talk of new ideas in Beijing recently, officials there have for months described China's Taiwan policy as a stalling tactic, saying little can be done until Chen's leadership of the self-governing island ends.
True to his past, Chen balanced Sunday's conciliatory gesture with insistence that, even if talks resume, nothing can be done to change Taiwan's status without the consent of its people. While he declared his acceptance of the ambiguity of the 1992 Hong Kong accord, he also emphasized his long-standing insistence that Taiwan is a sovereign entity entitled to U.N. membership and diplomatic recognition.
"The sovereignty of the Republic of China is vested with the 23 million people of Taiwan," he said. "The Republic of China is Taiwan, and Taiwan is the Republic of China. This is an indisputable fact."
To underline that contention, Foreign Minister Mark Chen announced that from now on the government would designate itself the "Republic of China (Taiwan)" in official documents, instead of just Republic of China. The policy was inaugurated Saturday in an agreement with the central African nation of Chad, one of only about two dozen countries that maintain relations with Taiwan rather than with China.
In the context of the hairsplitting semantics that mark the China-Taiwan dispute, the shift was seen as small but reflective of Chen's deep convictions on the long, evolving argument over Taiwan's status.
When Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces were defeated by the Communists of Mao Zedong in 1949, they took refuge on Taiwan with the claim that they, not the Communists, were the true rulers of China. As a result, they continued to call themselves the Republic of China and asserted they one day would return to the mainland and regain control. Sunday's National Day celebration, for instance, marked the date in 1911 when Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China.
Given that perspective, Taiwan's Nationalist rulers for years readily agreed there was only one China, including Taiwan. But Chen's party, with its Taiwanese nationalism, has never accepted that outlook. And now, more than half a century later, even the Nationalists have moved toward the idea of separate countries.
Chen's gesture toward the "one China" principle cherished by Beijing therefore went against a historical tide flowing in the other direction, with Chen and his party leading the way. In an interview Friday, for instance, Mark Chen, the foreign minister, described his government's stand in a way that seemed to leave no room for the "one China" principle.
"If [Chinese officials] can recognize that Taiwan is a country, [as] the People's Republic of China is a country," he said, "if they can do that, then we can sit down and talk." He added: "We are a country. I think we want to maintain the status quo at this point."