Taiwan's president proposes peace negotiations with China
Offer seen as bid to turn attention from political rival
TAIPEI -- President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan yesterday offered peace talks with Beijing, apparently seeking to regain the high ground from a political rival who is on a headline-grabbing visit to China.
Implicit in Chen's speech during a visit to the Marshall Islands was a message to Chinese leaders that they should be talking to him, the elected president, not to Lien Chan, the man he has twice defeated at the polls.
''The door for dialogue and negotiation is still open between the two sides," Chen said. ''Under the principles of democracy, peace, and parity, the two sides can at any time begin to have contact, dialogue, and negotiations."
The Chinese leadership, which has rebuffed all of Chen's requests to meet during the past five years, has warmly welcomed Lien, making the Taiwanese president look ineffectual on one of Taiwan's gravest challenges: China's threat of force to regain sovereignty over the island.
The threat of war has lingered across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait ever since the communists took over China in 1949 and the defeated Nationalist government retreated to this island the size of Maryland.
China regards Taiwan as a secessionist province to be recovered by force, if negotiations fail. In March, China's National People's Congress voted to make the use of force legal if Taiwan declared formal independence.
In yesterday's speech, Chen sought to come across as a flexible peacemaker rather than a troublemaker stoking one of Asia's most dangerous crises.
He said the rivals needed to talk to avert a conflict, which could quickly involve US forces seeking to defend a staunchly pro-American democracy against a rising communist power.
But Beijing is unlikely to be impressed until Chen shows more interest in its goal of unification. The Taiwanese leader continues to insist that only Taiwan's voters can determine its future.
Chen made his remarks as 68-year-old Lien Chan continued to dominate Taiwanese media attention with his eight-day ''Journey of Peace" which ends today. Huge crowds greeted Lien at every stop, and the Beijing government treated him like a head of state, lavishing coverage on him in official newspapers and on television.
While China and Taiwan do billions of dollars' worth of trade, their political relationship has been largely frozen since 1949, and Lien's visit is the first by any leader from his Nationalist Party since then.
Chen hopes to reclaim the initiative this week when another opposition leader, James Soong, travels to China on Thursday. Chen has said he is giving Soong a personal message for President Hu Jintao of China.
Chen's alliance with Soong is another indication of China's impact on Taiwanese politics.
Soong, who heads a small opposition party, has long been one of Chen's fiercest critics. He lost to Chen in the 2000 presidential election and was defeated again in 2004 when he was Lien's running mate.
Like Lien, Soong favors unification with China and is likely deemed more trustworthy by Beijing.