- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

TAIPEI, Taiwan Taiwan's leader said yesterday that he is considering making a major concession to China to start talks about ending a five-decade ban on direct shipping and air links between the rivals.

The island might allow private groups, instead of government bodies, to represent Taiwan in negotiations with China, Chen Shui-bian told reporters.

Mr. Chen, who is president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), said his administration has almost reached a consensus that "the government doesn't have to be on the front line for everything."

"With the government's guidance, we can authorize the private sector to assist us," he said. Shipping companies and airlines have previously offered to take part in talks with the mainland.

China, in a response issued through its official Xinhua news agency, said it would welcome "any practical and sincere proposal and action aimed at improving the relations across the Taiwan Straits."

Since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949, Taiwan has banned ships and planes from traveling directly to the mainland across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait over concerns that China might use any links to attack Taiwan.

But as trade with China expands, Taiwan's businesses are pressuring Mr. Chen to establish direct transportation links. Passengers and cargo currently have to stop in a third port or airport such as Hong Kong before proceeding to China. This delays shipments and increases expenses.

Despite Mr. Chen's repeated invitations to discuss the issue, Beijing has refused to negotiate with him until he accepts that Taiwan is an inseparable part of the mainland. Mr. Chen has refused to accept preconditions for talks.

Also yesterday, leading Taiwanese newspapers quoted Mr. Chen as saying that he is pessimistic about getting U.S. permission to visit Washington.

The U.S. capital has been off limits to Taiwan's leaders since America broke formal diplomatic relations with Taipei two decades ago and officially recognized rival China. But hopes for such a trip have been rising recently, with some U.S. lawmakers saying that they have had informal discussions about inviting Mr. Chen.

During a special briefing with local reporters on Thursday, Mr. Chen said that a Washington visit was unlikely. "I understand that with many things, I can't do as I wish," he was quoted as saying by the China Times and the Liberty Times.

Philip Yang, a political science professor at the elite National Taiwan University, said such a Washington trip would be "a disaster" because it would be too provocative.

"There are two red lines for Beijing," Mr. Yang said. "One is allowing Chen Shui-bian to go to Washington. The other is holding a joint military exercise with Taiwan and American forces."

Last week, China's Vice President Hu Jintao expected to be the next president went to Washington. But Mr. Hu kept a low profile, refusing requests for interviews and passing on a news conference.

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