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Monday, May 31, 2004

Taiwan-China gap can still be bridged

HONG KONG -- The conciliatory inaugural address May 20 by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, taken together with a major statement a few days earlier by Beijing, show that both Taiwan and mainland China are eager to avoid a confrontation. It is now conceivable that, given good will and flexibility on both sides, they may be able to edge away from a confrontation.

In his speech, Chen voiced understanding of Beijing's insistence on its "one China" principle, even though he made it clear that Taiwan could not accept it. However, he spoke intriguingly of the European Union, which, he said, "has successfully integrated the common interests of the people of Europe." The EU's experience "has far-reaching implications," he said, and the trend toward regional integration "has led to fundamental changes in the conventional thinking of national sovereignty and territorial boundaries."

In his speech, Chen said that, given the consent of the Taiwan public, in the future "the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China -- or Taiwan and China -- can seek to establish relations in any form whatsoever."

Four years ago, again while refusing to accept the "one China" principle, Chen held out the possibility of a "future one China." This time, it seems, he is suggesting that the way to political integration of the mainland and Taiwan is by using the European model, by forming something like a Chinese Union, comprising both the People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Predictably, China reacted negatively to Chen's address, saying it was no longer interested in listening to his words but would only watch his actions. This is to some extent understandable, since Beijing feels that he has already broken promises he made four years ago by insisting that China and Taiwan are separate countries.

What China wants now is action by Chen to show that he has reversed course or, at least, that he is no longer pushing to separate Taiwan permanently from China. A halt to the "de-Sinicization" campaign -- under which Taiwan is being turned into less and less of a Chinese society -- would certainly help.

Although the Chinese statement of May 17 has been widely described as tough, it actually contains many conciliatory offers. For example, it says a cross-Strait dialogue can be resumed, the state of hostility formally ended and a mechanism of mutual trust in the military field set up. Moreover, a close economic relationship, similar to what Beijing has offered Hong Kong, can be established. Most important of all, the issue of "international living space" for Taiwan can also be addressed.

But the statement said "if the Taiwan leaders should cling to their 'Taiwan independence' position" and their "one country on each side" stance, then "the aforementioned prospect will not come true" and "hopes for peace" will evaporate.

Interestingly, two of Beijing's offers -- that of creating a confidence-building mechanism as well as a framework for cross-Strait peace -- have also been mentioned by Chen. This means that the two sides have considerable common ground, at least in terms of their objective.

Clearly, both Taiwan and China do not want war when each side is holding out to the other its vision of how peace can be achieved. To Beijing, it is "one China," including both the mainland and Taiwan, while to Taipei it appears to be the possibility of a "Chinese Union."

This is the time for both sides to exercise maximum flexibility. One influential Beijing academic, Li Jiaquan, writing before the inauguration, said if Chen retained the "official title, flag, national anthem and territory, though not acceptable, we [China] could tolerate" such a Republic of China. "China," he said, "is willing to be included in Taiwan's concept of China and vice versa. . . . This overlapping of territorial sovereignty underscores the fact that both belong to the same family, or the same "one China."

Now, if Beijing accepts that a new Taiwan constitution that continued to claim the mainland as part of the "Republic of China" is, in fact, acknowledgment of "one China," that may be one way of bridging the enormous gulf between the two sides on this key issue.

All Beijing has to do is say that Taiwan has indicated its support for "one China," and the two sides can discuss practical issues of peace, the economy and international space.

And all Taiwan will have to do is not contradict Beijing's interpretation of the significance of retaining certain sections of the constitution.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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