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Analysis -- Chat seems to open new era for China and Taiwan

By William Foreman

Associated Press

BOAO, China — China and Taiwan spent nearly six decades bickering, pointing weapons at each other and not talking face-to-face. But over the weekend, the two began what appeared to be a bold new effort to ease tensions that have long threatened to spark a war.

It began with a hastily arranged meeting on Saturday between Taiwanese Vice President-elect Vincent Siew and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Both were attending a business conference on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan, and they agreed to sit down for a 20-minute chat.

Though the talk was brief and focused mostly on economics, it was historical.

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Siew, who takes office next month, became the highest-ranking elected figure from Taiwan to meet a Chinese leader since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949, when Communists took over Beijing and Taiwan refused to be ruled by the new government.

The 67-year-old Taiwanese technocrat said the exchange was "friendly," and Hu had personally escorted him from the room after the dinner — a gesture of great respect in China.

Hu, meanwhile, welcomed Siew’s economic proposals and was inspired to "think deep" about relations with Taiwan, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Sunday.

Washington praised the gathering, with Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte calling it a "good way forward." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who attended the conference, said the rivals were "at the beginning of a new phase in relations."

But there is still a long way to go. Bitter disputes could easily erupt over the basic question of Taiwan’s status. Is it a country or part of the People’s Republic of China? Both sides disagree.

This wasn’t the first time the rivals appeared to be on the verge of burying their historical grudges.

Their envoys had a series of meetings in the 1990s that eventually broke down amid squabbles over sticky sovereignty issues. Relations went into a deep freeze during the eight-year administration of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who steps down next month after reaching his term limit.

But this new round of rapprochement has one of the best chances of succeeding so far because China is dealing with a new type of Taiwanese leadership.

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Such a meeting never came close to happening under Chen’s government because Beijing loathed him. Chen refused to embrace China’s sacred goal of eventual unification, insisting Taiwan’s 23 million people were the only ones who could determine the island’s future — a view anathema to Beijing.

China gambled that Chen’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party would eventually be voted out of office. That finally happened last month when Siew and his political partner, President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, were elected by promising better ties with Beijing.

Ma and Siew are different from past Taiwanese leaders, who were independence sympathizers or clung to Cold War grudges with China. The next leaders of the island — one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies — are moderates who don’t oppose unification, though they say they want to leave the touchy issue to future generations.

For now, they want to focus on other things: trade, tourism and launching air links across the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait.

But if China fails to make progress with Ma and Siew, Taiwanese voters — who seem hungry for better relations — might grow frustrated with Beijing and re-elect another independence-leaning leadership.

Already many young Taiwanese feel little or no connection to China. Allowing this sentiment to spread could make eventual unification difficult — maybe impossible.

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