Relations out of the deep freeze?

Leaders’ chat marks

milestone not seen

in several decades

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 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.

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 reaction

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 easily could 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.

Why now?

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.

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.

China gambled that Chen’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party eventually would 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.

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