Taiwan, China officials in historic meeting

Image: Vincent Siew
Taiwan's vice president-elect Vicent Siew speaks to the press before departure to China's Hainan island for the Boao Forum at Taoyuan airport on April 11, 2008. Sam Yeh / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Taiwan's next vice president sat down with Chinese leader Hu Jintao for a historic chat Saturday 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 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. But symbols are extremely important in Chinese culture, and they can be key signals about where relations are going.

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, which is extremely cautious about Taiwan affairs, did not immediately comment about the meeting on the sidelines of the Boao Forum, an annual conference with businesspeople and world leaders on balmy Hainan Island.

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.

Promising to soothe relations
Early on, it was obvious that Beijing favored 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 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Neither opposes unification, but they insist the thorny issue is best settled by later generations.

After Saturday's meeting, Siew said 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.

Siew noted that in recent years "politics have been cold but business has been hot" between the two sides, a reference to the thousands of Taiwanese companies investing in China. He also said that more than 4 million Taiwanese visit the mainland each year, and he hopes to open up Taiwan to more Chinese tourists. He also wanted to begin weekend charter flights between the two sides, which still don't allow regular direct air travel, he said.

"Reality proves that cross-strait economic development is the common wish of people on both sides," he said.

'Conflict over Taiwan's sovereignty'
To stress his interest in business, Siew's delegation included one of Taiwan's most powerful businessmen, Morris Chang, chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world's largest producer of made-to-order chips.

Chang agreed the meeting's atmosphere was "extremely good," and he said Hu gave positive responses to Siew's ideas. But he said a gradual approach must be taken with China because "Rome wasn't built in a day."

Beijing still refuses to recognize Taiwan's elected government, acknowledging Siew only as chairman of the Cross-Strait Common Market Foundation, a private group that seeks to build economic cooperation between China and Taiwan.

Some experts said the Hu-Siew meeting was a significant sign that the relationship was improving quickly. But both sides would have to eventually tackle the contentious sovereignty issue — whether or not Taiwan should be ruled by the Communist mainland.

"Now, there is no immediate danger in the cross-Strait relations," said Peter Chen, a China expert at Taiwan's National Chengchi University. "Yet the conflict over Taiwan's sovereignty will remain over the long run."