China offers olive branch to Taiwan leadership
By Henry Chu in Beijing
In a shift that could ease tensions in one of the world's hot spots, a top Chinese official has tempered Beijing's hostility to the ruling party in Taiwan, blaming only a small minority for pushing independence, and extending a tentative welcome to the majority.
China also released a prisoner with United States ties, and pledged $A290 million to help rebuild Afghanistan, moves aimed at underscoring its desire for good ties with Washington before President George Bush visits next month.
State media quoted the Vice-Premier Qian Qichen as saying: "We believe there is a difference between the majority of Democratic Progressive Party members and the extremely small number of diehard 'Taiwan independence' elements."
China has shunned the party since March 2000, when its candidate, Chen Shui-bian, was the first opposition leader to be elected president in Taiwan's history.
The remarks by Mr Qian, China's top diplomat, were Beijing's most conciliatory yet towards the DPP, which China has denounced as a separatist movement.
"This is an important speech. We have taken notice of it," Chen Ming-tong, one of the island's top policymakers on China, told a Taipei news conference.
"We are happy to see the other side issue a message that is conducive to positive interaction between the two sides." But more time was needed to study it.
Mr Qian reiterated China's insistence that the island must recognise that it belonged to China before any formal political negotiations could be revived. Mr Chen's government has steadfastly refused to accept any preconditions to talks.
Chinese officials have sought to isolate Mr Chen on the world stage and to court his opponents, inviting several Nationalist Party members to Beijing for friendly chats. But last month the ruling party strengthened its position, while the Nationalists' fortunes plummeted.
The new political landscape may have prompted Beijing to moderate its position towards the party.
But analysts warned against too much sudden optimism. The Beijing regime would almost certainly exclude Mr Chen from any list of party members it would invite to the mainland, as well as his deputy, Vice-President Annette Lu, an ardent independence supporter whom Chinese media once called "scum".
Many in the Beijing regime regard Mr Chen as a closet independence advocate, a notion seemingly reinforced this month by the decision by his government to change Taiwanese passports to say, "Issued in Taiwan". That idea was later scrapped.
For his part, Mr Chen is not likely to reverse course and embrace the one-China principle.
"I don't think Chen's going to give Beijing the brass ring they're seeking," said Jonathan Pollack, a China expert at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
But both sides appear eager to strengthen economic ties, despite some fear in Taiwan that the island may become too dependent on the mainland and have no choice but to reunify with it eventually.
Taiwan and China are new members of the World Trade Organisation, which will broaden the scope of economic activity across the Taiwan Strait. The official news agency Xinhua quoted Mr Qian as saying that "political differences should not interfere with trade exchange, and man-made obstacles which limit economic co-operation should be removed as soon as possible".
source: Los Angeles Times, 26/01/2002