A Taiwanese military drill team performs during the island's National Day outside the Presidential Palace in Taipei on Sunday.
updated 10/10/2004 10:02:43 AM ET 2004-10-10T14:02:43

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

President Chen Shui-bian 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 Chen had promised to make an “important announcement” that would improve relations with China, which has repeatedly threatened to attack the island.

Chen said that 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.

Richard Chung  /  Reuters
Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian takes a more conciliatory tone toward China in his National Day address on Sunday.
Still, Chen refused to cave into China’s long-standing precondition for talks: that Taiwan agree it’s 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,” Chen said.

“Any conflict in the Taiwan Strait could result in irreparable damage to the peoples on both sides,” 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.”

China did not immediately comment on the address, 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.”

U.S. praise for speech
Chen’s speech was 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,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said.

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

Arms deal
In an earlier address Sunday, Chen defended his plan to spend billions on U.S.-made weapons, saying that the Taiwanese can only rely 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.

Washington agreed to sell Taiwan the weapons in 2001, but the island has made little progress in sealing the deal. The delay has fed U.S. suspicions that the Taiwanese aren’t serious about their defense and plan to rely on America to repel a Chinese attack.

But Chen said that Taiwan understands its responsibilities. “We can’t rely on others to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait. We can only rely on ourselves to have the strength to protect the status quo of peace.”

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