Sunday, October 10, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s leader called for peace talks and other “concrete actions” to reduce tensions with rival China during a National Day speech yesterday that was far more conciliatory than in years past.

Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) avoided language and issues that have raised tensions in the past during the speech, and even extended Taiwan’s best wishes as China prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

“Taiwan is pleased to witness the steady progress, reforms and peaceful emergence of China,” he said from his podium under a sunny sky in front of the presidential office.

The address was highly anticipated because Mr. Chen had promised to make an “important announcement” that would improve relations with China, which repeatedly has threatened to attack the island.

Mr. Chen said the two sides could use a 1992 meeting in Hong Kong between the rivals’ envoys as a model for a new round of talks. The 1992 discussions led to a series of icebreaking meetings, which later broke off amid differences about Taiwan’s political status.

The president didn’t spell out what he meant by the proposal. He didn’t say whether he just meant the two sides should use envoys who would talk in Hong Kong.

Still, Mr. Chen refused to submit to China’s long-standing precondition for talks — that Taiwan agree it is an inseparable part of China. The two sides split when the communists won a civil war in 1949 and took over the mainland, just 100 miles west of Taiwan.

He also accused China of pointing 600 ballistic missiles at Taiwan and adding 50 to 75 more each year. “The threat of military force poses the greatest shadows of terror and forces of darkness across the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Chen said.

“Any conflict in the Taiwan Strait could result in irreparable damage to the peoples on both sides,” Mr. Chen said. “Therefore, I propose that both sides should seriously consider the issue of arms control and take concrete actions to reduce tension and military threats.”

In an earlier address yesterday, Mr. Chen defended his plan to spend billions of dollars on U.S.-made weapons, saying that the Taiwanese can rely only on themselves to protect their island from China’s growing threat.

The president has been struggling to get the legislature’s approval for the $18 billion arms deal, which includes planes, submarines and Patriot missiles.

China did not immediately comment on the later speech, which followed a parade with rifle-twirling soldiers in shiny chrome helmets, marching bands with long rows of tubas and children waving green flags to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

Mr. Chen’s remarks were praised by the United States, Taiwan’s most important friend and likely ally in a war. “We welcome the constructive message conveyed in President Chen’s speech, which we believe offers some creative ideas for reducing tensions and resuming the cross-straits dialogue,” State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said.

Mr. Chen has angered China by pushing for a new constitution — a move Beijing fears would enshrine the island’s independent status and create a new nation. But the Taiwanese leader didn’t dwell on the issue yesterday. He simply said he still wanted to “forge ahead with the constitutional reform project.”

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