- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

A gift of pandas has considerable symbolism to Beijing. It conferred a pair on President Richard Nixon when he reopened U.S.-China relations in 1972.

That’s why a gift of pandas to Taiwan after the visit of Lien Chan, leader of the island’s chief opposition party, has considerably more significance than just a new attraction for the local zoo.

His visit also has a curious resonance. No leader of the Nationalists has visited the mainland since 1949 when the party, losers in China’s civil war, fled from the communists to the safety of Taiwan.

The Nationalists long had a “one China” policy, but it envisioned them rather than the communists as China’s rightful rulers. Now “one China” is Beijing’s policy, the assertion that Taiwan is an integral part of communist-ruled China.

Chinese President Hu Jintao received Mr. Lien almost as a fellow head of state, signing a joint communique and easing restrictions on Chinese tourists visiting the island and tariffs on Taiwanese fruit.

Next up is a visit to the mainland by James Soong, head of Taiwan’s second-largest opposition party, which, like the Nationalists, favors closer, friendlier ties with the mainland. Beijing would clearly like to drive a wedge between the opposition and President Chen Shui-ban, whose Democratic Progressive Party is suspected by Beijing of harboring plans to someday declare the island independent.

Mr. Hu has brushed off meeting with Mr. Chen or visiting the island until Mr. Chen’s government formally acknowledges China’s sovereignty. And there the impasse stands.

China’s usual approach to Taiwan has been a mix of bluster and threats by pointedly launching missiles in the island’s direction. In 1996, the threats were serious enough to draw the U.S. Navy into the region.

As China has grown more integrated into the global economy and sensitive to its international image, its approach to Taiwan has become more subtle — with one glaring exception. Two months ago, Beijing formally adopted the position China would use military force if Taiwan declared independence. And it seemed stunned by the negative world response, including the European Union’s putting on indefinite hold a decision to resume arms sales.

The new, softer approach of trade and engagement may herald an easing of tensions. Panda diplomacy is preferable to missile rattling in the Taiwan Straits.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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