Int'l Herald Tribune

Beijing visit is divisive, Taiwan official says

By Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher
The New York Times
Thursday, March 31, 2005

BEIJING The top Taiwanese official in charge of relations with the mainland strongly denounced a visit here by a delegation of politicians from Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party, even as the group arrived in the capital on the final leg of a visit to China.

Prof. Joseph Wu, the chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the cabinet-level agency responsible for relations with China, accused the Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang, of helping the Chinese Communist Party at the expense of Taiwan.

"The Chinese strategy is always divide and conquer, and the KMT is playing into China's hands," he said in a telephone interview from Taipei on Wednesday evening.

"It's very odd that they would cooperate with the Communist Party instead of the ruling party here on Taiwan," he said.

Wu is a close aide to President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, whose Democratic Progressive Party tilts toward somewhat greater independence from the mainland. Wu said that the Nationalists had not notified him before making the trip to the mainland and were not carrying any messages or overtures from Taiwan's government to improve cross-straits relations.

The 34-member delegation, which is led by the vice chairman of the Nationalist Party, Chiang Pin-kung, arrived in Beijing at a time when Taiwan's already tense relations with China have been inflamed by a new Chinese law authorizing war if Taiwan moves toward formal independence. On Saturday hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese marched in Taipei to denounce China's anti-secession law, which was passed on March 14.

Chinese officials and state-run media have seized on the visit as evidence that things are business-as-usual.

"The Taiwanese people don't like to see tense relations between the two sides of the Strait, Chiang said upon his arrival in Beijing. "Through cross-Strait trade and exchanges we can ease tensions and defuse or reduce this crisis." His remarks were reported by China's official Xinhua news agency.

Nationalist Party officials have used the five-day visit to underscore what they described as their historic party's credentials for negotiating peace with China's leaders. Before arriving in Beijing for discussions with central government officials scheduled for Thursday, the delegation visited sites in southern China that link the Nationalist Party to the mainland, which the Kuomintang ruled before fleeing to Taiwan in 1949 after defeat by the Communists.

"Cross-Strait relations are complex and fraught right now," said Chang Jung-kung, a Nationalist spokesman traveling with the delegation. "We're Taiwan's biggest opposition party, with a long history of dealing with the Communist Party, and we feel we have a responsibility to promote peace and dialogue." Chang spoke in a phone interview from Nanjing, where the delegation visited the tomb of Sun Yat-sen, who is honored by both Nationalists and Communists as the founder of modern China.

In Taiwan, reaction to the visit reflected uncertainty about China's intentions and polarization between those who support growing Taiwanese independence, and those who favor reconciliation with the mainland, analysts said. A public opinion survey on Taiwan sponsored by the Nationalist Party showed 44 percent of Taiwanese voters supported the visit, Chang said.

It showed 30 percent opposed, with the rest uncertain, Chang said.

"The reaction reflects a dilemma here," said Philip Yang, an expert on Taiwan-China relations at National Taiwan University, speaking of the delegation's visit. "On the one hand, people want their Taiwanese identity, but on the other hand they understand the complete willingness of the mainland to use force and also understand the importance of economic relations."

Chen, Taiwan's pro-independence president, said Tuesday that the Nationalists' visit was a backward effort to dominate dealings with mainland China. Supporters of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party said the timing of the visit - soon after China passed its anti-secession law - will hurt the Nationalists' public support in Taiwan.

"It's a timing that we don't think is most helpful," said Hsiao Bi-khim, the DPP's director of international affairs. "This recent, hostile gesture has really backfired here, and it will be hard for us to control the reaction here," she said, referring to China's anti-secession law.

But a strategist for the Nationalist Party described Chen's pro-independence policies as a "failure" and said more Taiwanese voters will swing behind the Nationalists' more pragmatic approach, as signaled by this visit.

The Nationalists want to encourage Taiwanese trade and political dialogue with China to strengthen Taiwan's influence, said Szu-yin Ho, a political scientist at the National Chengchi University in Taipei who advises the Nationalist Party. "If we jump on the bandwagon of Chinese prosperity, Taiwan can enrich itself and then stabilize relations across the Taiwan Straits," Ho said.

The Nationalist delegation was focusing on promoting trade and investment. Chang said the delegation would talk with Chinese government officials in Beijing about regularizing charter flights between China and Taiwan, so Taiwanese business people can travel back and forth without going through a third destination. Earlier this year, China and Taiwan allowed flights between the two sides for the Lunar New Year holiday.

"Not all the problems in cross-strait relations can be solved quickly, but by promoting economic and trade relations we can lay the groundwork for peace," Chang said.

Taiwanese visits to China grew by a third in 2004, to 3.7 million, and trade between the two sides grew to $62 billion nearly a fifth of Taiwan's total trade according to Taiwanese estimates.

Chang said the delegation's visit would probably be a forerunner to a visit by the party's chairman, Lien Chan, before he retires later this year. Lien's visit would be the first to the mainland by a Nationalist leader since the end of the civil war in 1949.

But few observers expect Taiwan's relations with China to improve much in coming months. The Taiwanese government plans to renew in May its push for formal participation in the World Health Organization, which Beijing opposes, said Hsiao, the Democratic Progressive Party official. "I think there can be improvement in relations, but it will happen only step by step," said Chang.

Chris Buckley reported for the International Herald Tribune. Keith reported for The New York Times.