- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

China is courting Taiwan’s political opposition in a charm offensive of flattery and bouquets. The “beautiful island” is being smothered with offers of pandas and produce.

The mainland, rich and threatening, even wants to flood Taiwan with thousands, maybe millions, of mainland tourists — a gesture of friendship that could become a potential security nightmare, according to some suspicious Taiwan officials.

The Chinese have pulled out the best tea service for Taiwan’s opposition in recent weeks. Lien Chan, elderly leader of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, was flown over for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and given full honors. Mr. Lien spoke sentimentally of the trip as a major opening in cross-straits negotiations between his Nationalists — who carry the banner for those who fled the mainland and took refuge on Taiwan when Mao Tse-tung’s communists took power.

Despite the warm reception, China has not pulled back one inch from its pledge — now written into law — to use force against Taiwan if it declares independence. And that hangs like a sword over upcoming meetings between Mr. Hu and Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.

That is, if the meetings occur at all. According to Taiwan officials I talked to last week, Mr. Chen passed a message to Mr. Hu through another opposition leader, James Soong, who had talks in Beijing last week. How Mr. Hu responded to that overture will shape the tone of any sessions between Mr. Chen and Mr. Hu.

Mr. Chen, elected as head of the pro-independence party, has not wavered from his position of rejecting China’s offer of union with Taiwan on the same basis as Hong Kong — as one China but two economic systems. But he has kept open negotiating lines on the issue.

Mr. Hu — by reaching out to the Taiwanese through the two opposition leaders has at least shown a little willingness to put aside the tired, old displays of hubris toward Taiwan.

The invitations to wine and dine the opposition leaders first and greet Mr. Chen with leftovers later were regarded as a crude attempt to isolate Taiwan’s governing party. But interestingly, it was not deemed as disloyal at all for the two opposition leaders to accept the hospitality.

“It’s just politics,” said one top Taiwanese official whose sympathies lie with the governing Independence Party. The two opposition parties are, quite simply, opposed to independence, and said so in their talks with Mr. Hu.

Ordinarily, inviting an opposition leader first not only upsets diplomatic protocol, but in many countries for a party leader to accept such an invitation from an adversary would open him up to ruinous charges.

However, as it was explained to me, the Taiwanese well understand what the Chinese have had in mind in their charm offensive. The independence backers in Taiwan did not regard Mr. Lien’s decision to go to the mainland as disloyal as much as a cynical political bid to bolster the Nationalist Party in Taiwan.

The trip was widely seen as an effort to restore the Nationalists’ own sagging fortunes while portraying the Independence Party as radicals playing too close to the edge with China. The timing of Mr. Lien’s visit was moved up ahead of this weekend’s constitutional elections in Taiwan, which the Nationalists appear to be on the verge of winning.

What the sum of all this will be may take a while to calculate. But it is encouraging to know that China and Taiwan, for now, are trying to send people, politicians, pandas and produce across the straits, not threats. It may all just be a trick. But there is no overestimating what it can lead to.

The pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which Chairman Mao gave to President Nixon in 1972, changed history’s course. Beijing knows how to use unconventional diplomacy to good effect with the West. Now the Chinese seem to be stirring around in Taiwan politics, something that few nations dare try without full body armor.

Whether the Taiwanese will come to resent this wallowing in their internal affairs, or whether the interference will be shrugged off as just another circumstance of geography and history that draws them ever nearer, could be very important.

John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.

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