Quick chat at tropical resort seems to open new era for China, Taiwan

Monday, April 14, 2008

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 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 historic.

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 tech¿nocrat 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.

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.

Ma and Siew are different from past Taiwanese leaders. They 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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