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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Taiwan's next vice president makes history, scores meeting with Chinese president

William Foreman, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BOAO, China - Taiwan's next vice president sat down with Chinese leader Hu Jintao for a historic chat at a tropical island resort, raising hopes the rivals were finally beginning to ease six decades of hostilities in one of Asia's most dangerous potential flashpoints.

The meeting between Hu and Vincent Siew at a business conference Saturday marked the first time such a high-ranking elected figure from Taiwan visited a Chinese president since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

The discussion, which focused on economics, lasted only 20 minutes and was largely symbolic.

However, symbols are extremely important in Chinese culture, and they can be key signals about where relations are going across the Taiwan Strait.

Siew - a 69-year-old technocrat and economics expert - said the meeting was "friendly," and he left with a positive impression of Hu.

"I believe he's a pragmatic man," he told reporters, flashing his trademark toothy grin.

Beijing waited until after midnight on Sunday to issue a public response to Siew.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted the Chinese president as saying both sides faced a historical opportunity and they should work together for more progress.

He added that Beijing wanted to "think deep about cross-Straits economic exchanges and co-operation under the new circumstances."

Siew's visit with Hu was also extraordinary because Beijing has spent the past eight years snubbing such invitations from Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui-bian, who steps down next month.

At times, an improvement in relations seemed hopeless and both sides appeared to be moving toward a war, which could quickly involve the U.S. - Taiwan's most important friend.

China was deeply distrustful of Chen because he leaned toward independence and wouldn't embrace Beijing's sacred goal of eventual unification.

Beijing has repeatedly warned that seeking a permanent split could trigger a devastating conflict and that Taiwan's 23 million people had no other choice but to join the mainland.

In the Xinhua report Sunday, Hu didn't mention Chen by name, but the Chinese leader said in recent years relations with Taiwan "suffered twists and turns for reasons known to all."

Early on, it was obvious that Beijing favoured Siew and his political partner, President-elect Ma Ying-jeou.

They were elected last month after promising voters they would soothe relations with China - just 160 kilometres across the Taiwan Strait.

Neither opposes unification, but they insist the thorny issue is best settled by later generations.

Siew said he told Hu that Taiwan wanted to allow more Chinese tourists to visit the island.

The Taiwanese politician also said that he wanted to start weekend charter flights between the two sides, which currently don't allow regular direct air travel.

Hu supported both proposals, Xinhua reported.

Siew told reporters he didn't expect any big political breakthroughs to come quickly. But he said he told Hu the two sides should begin talking again and make economic issues the top priority.

"Both sides should face up to reality, usher in the future, set aside disputes and pursue a win-win situation," said Siew.

© The Canadian Press, 2008

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