In an inaugural speech that drew both a quick rebuke and a thin olive branch from China, President Chen Shui-bian on Saturday called for reconciliation with the mainland but not reunification.
China's leaders have insisted that Chen embrace their so-called "one China" principle as a precondition to negotiations and have threatened war if he tries to lead the island toward formal independence. But Chen, in language alternately conciliatory and defiant, neither advanced the cause of independence nor moved closer to reunification.
His only mention of the "one China" principle was to say he hoped it could be dealt with in the future.
"The people across the Taiwan Strait share the same ancestral, cultural and historical background," Chen told the tens of thousands of people who gathered under overcast skies in front of the presidential office. "While upholding the principles of democracy and parity, building upon the existing foundations and constructing conditions for cooperation through goodwill, we believe that the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future "one China."
A few hours later, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China accused Taiwan's new president of being "short of sincerity."
In a statement released through the official Xinhua news agency in Beijing, the central committee reiterated China's position that the one-China principle "is the basis for peaceful, steady development" of relations across the Taiwan Strait.
In a separate statement, the Chinese government offered to hold talks with Taiwan if its government will adhere to a 1992 oral agreement between China and Taiwan. Under that agreement, both sides acknowledged there is only one China but allowed each other to define just what that means.
Chang Mau-kuei, a research fellow at Taiwan's Academia Sinica and an expert in the arcane semantics of cross-Strait relations, said he interpreted that statement by China as a "stepping back" from the bellicose rhetoric and threats that have flowed since last July. That is when former President Lee Teng-hui said Taiwan and China should negotiate on a "state-to-state" basis, a comment China interpreted as an intolerable step toward independence.
"I think it's a change of position," Chang said, though he cautioned that it could prove to be a short-lived one.
Chang said the offer to hold talks may have been an indirect expression of gratitude to Chen for assuring China in his inaugural speech that he would not declare independence "as long as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan." Chen also pledged not to promote a referendum on the issue of independence, even though his Democratic Progressive Party has long championed that cause.
But in another part of his speech clearly directed at China's leaders, Chen cautioned that "history has illustrated that war will only create hatred and enmity, with absolutely no benefit to the development of mutual relations." And he declared that "authoritarianism and force can only bring surrender for one time, while democracy and freedom are values that will endure forever."
Rather than agree to become part of a Beijing-led China under the "one country, two systems" scheme that China's leaders have insisted on in recent months, Chen suggested that China follow Taiwan's example and become a democracy.
Chen's speech was probably one of the most cautiously crafted and closely monitored inaugural addresses ever. He walked a potentially dangerous tightrope, trying simultaneously to soothe Beijing and reassure Washington, while not alienating the legions of pro-independence supporters in his own political party.