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China, Taiwan OK plan to hold periodic talks

Envoys from Taiwan and China approved a plan to hold periodic high-level talks Tuesday during a meeting on a trade agreement that could help ease the threat of war between the rivals.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Envoys from Taiwan and China approved a plan to hold periodic high-level talks Tuesday during a meeting on a trade agreement that could help ease the threat of war between the rivals.

The historic session came a day after Chen Yunlin — the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Taiwan in six decades — was greeted on arrival by anti-China protesters waving signs, calling him a communist bandit and rallying outside the legislature.

During Tuesday's two-hour meeting, Chen and chief Taiwanese negotiator Chiang Pin-kung agreed to hold high-level talks every six months alternatively in Taipei and Beijing, Taiwanese official Kao Koong-lian told reporters.

Kao said the next round will focus on financial cooperation. The two sides will aim to sign a memorandum of understanding allowing banks to set up branches on each side, he said.

The two envoys are expected to sign the trade pact later in the day, a deal would allow direct shipping links across the Taiwan Strait and would further expand the number of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108. Cargo flights would be allowed for the first time, with 60 crossing the strait each month.

In a statement as the meeting opened, Chen said the session meant that "both sides have grasped a rare historic opportunity" and that future talks should deal with finance.

"We face a global economic slowdown and uncertainties have increased in the environment. The financial turmoil is more severe than the 1997 Asian financial crisis," he said. "The conditions pose severe challenges to both sides and highlight the importance of financial and economic cooperation."

The meeting drew applause from three chambers of commerce representing America, Japan and Europe. In a joint statement, the business groups said restrictions on flights and shipping have kept Taiwan from fully participating in the global and Asian economies.

Chen was mostly insulated Monday from the noisy crowds of Taiwan independence supporters, who were blocked or dragged away by security forces. About 5,000 police were guarding the capital, Taipei, during Chen's five-day trip.

Making sure that Chen's visit went smoothly was extremely important to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. He was elected last March, promising voters he would ease tensions with China and forge closer trade ties with the huge neighbor, just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.

It has taken such a high-ranking Chinese official six decades to visit this island because deeply rooted hostilities and suspicions have prevented such exchanges.

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the Communists won a bloody civil war in 1949 and took over the mainland. Beijing has demanded that Taiwan eventually unify or face a punishing attack. The threat has made the Taiwan Strait one of Asia's most dangerous potential flashpoints.

A conflict could quickly involve the U.S., which has long warned China it may defend the island.

Although political relations have been in a deep freeze for decades, business ties have been expanding rapidly in the past 20 years. Many companies and moderate middle-class Taiwanese have favored friendlier relations with China.

After arriving Monday, Chen said he hoped relations would continue to improve.

Negotiating with their giant neighbor is a delicate task for the Taiwanese. They want the benefits of better trade ties with China's booming economy. But they are still worried about being absorbed by the mainland, viewed by many as being repressive, backward and prone to bullying.

That was the popular sentiment among the hundreds of people who attended a rally outside the legislature Monday night. Most of the protesters wore yellow headbands or scarves that said, "Taiwan is my country."

Lee Rui-pei, a 32-year-old homemaker, thought that Chen's visit came too soon and that the Taiwanese president was moving too fast in improving ties with China.

"Ma should not sacrifice Taiwan's interest for the sake of conducting exchanges with China," she said.

Earlier in the day, protesters tried to confront Chen at the airport before he was whisked away in a black limousine. Many were blocked from getting near the landmark Grand Hotel, where he was staying. Police erected tall barbed-wire barricades with large nets to block eggs and other items thrown by protesters.

But a small group of protesters was able to rent a room on the hotel's seventh floor, where they unfurled a banner out the window reading, "Bandit Chen Yunlin Get Out." Police grabbed another man at the hotel who was shouting, "A communist bandit has arrived," using a term popular in Taiwan during the Cold War.

A small group of Taipei city council members sat cross-legged on the ground near the hotel and chanted, "Pull out the missiles!" They were referring to the hundreds of Chinese missiles aimed at the island.

About 50 followers of Falun Gong — a spiritual group banned on the mainland — practiced their meditation exercises outside Taipei 101 before Chen had dinner in the skyscraper, once the world's tallest building.

Armed with loudspeakers, a convoy of dozens of yellow taxis cruised around the streets blasting anti-China slogans. Some of the drivers had signs that said, "Taiwan is not part of China."

Beijing still doesn't formally recognize Taiwan's government, and there has been much speculation about whether Chen will address the Taiwanese leader as "president" when they meet Thursday.

Chen ignored reporters Monday when they raised the issue. But when he was asked if he heard the sound of the protests, he would only say, "Yes."