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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 May 2005, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Lien visit warms Taiwan-China prospects
By Caroline Gluck
BBC, Taipei

It began with the red carpet treatment and huge, cheering crowds.

It concluded with a package of goodwill gestures from China, including the offer of two giant pandas.

Chinese officials send off the plane carrying Taiwan's Nationalist Party Chairman Lien Chan and his delegation at Pudong airport in Shanghai, China, 03 May 2005
Mr Lien left China on a high note
From start to finish, the historic visit to China by Taiwan opposition head Lien Chan was highly symbolic.

He becomes the first Nationalist Party leader to return to the mainland since the party fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949.

But analysts are concluding it was also successful in other ways.

"One of the biggest results of this visit may be that its changed people's perceptions in Taiwan," said Lu Ya-li, professor of political science at Taiwan's Chinese Culture University.

"Lien's visit, the wide coverage it got, shifted people's thinking towards China, and the Communist Party," she said.

Prospects for future China-Taiwan relations now seem very bright
Chao Chun-shan, Tamkang University

Ms Lu said the visit "could mark a turning point in cross strait relations - for better or worse", adding: "I think things will probably get better - if only because its hard for things to get much worse than they have been."

Lien Chan, who lost two presidential elections in Taiwan and has vowed to stand down as chairman of his party later this year, was feted like a head of state.

His image as a somewhat dour, wooden politician was transformed.

In front of the ever-present media, he appeared relaxed and confident, even cracking jokes.

"Prospects for future China-Taiwan relations now seem very bright," concluded Chao Chun-shan at Tamkang University's Institute of Mainland China.

"Lien Chan and [Chinese President] Hu Jintao agreed to end the mutual hostility between their parties; and this visit has helped to open the door for negotiations between Taipei and Beijing."

Support at home

While there was hardly overwhelming public support in Taiwan for Lien Chan's visit before it got under way, recent public opinion polls now show a majority of people believe it has helped to ease cross-strait tensions.

People are now looking to the government to take the opportunity to improve relations.

Taiwan's independence-leaning President Chen Shui-bian has taken note.

Initially highly critical of the visit, he has now asked another opposition leader, James Soong, of the People First Party or PFP, to deliver a message to Chinese leaders on his behalf.

Taiwan's Nationalist Party Chairman Lien Chan, left, toasts with Taiwan Affairs Office Director Chen Yunlin during a banquet in Shanghai, China, Monday, May 2, 2005.
Toasting to the future: Mr Lien called for cross-strait talks
And in an attempt to regain the diplomatic initiative, he has urged China to begin talking directly to his government, saying he would be willing to hold talks at any time.

He also invited President Hu to visit Taiwan, to see for himself the realities on the ground - though such invitations are hugely problematic. China says it is ready to talk to Mr Chen, but only if he agrees to recognise Beijing's sovereignty over the island.

"[Mr Chen] has shown he's very flexible and pragmatic - able to readjust his policies to deal with the changing situation," commented Philip Yang, professor of political science at National Taiwan University.

"He was feeling somewhat marginalised. Lien Chan's visit had put great pressure on him."

While President Chen may have concluded that it was better to take a lead, rather than let China sideline him, his shift has not gone down well with some of Taiwan's hardline pro-independence groups, and even some within his Democratic Progressive Party, who have reacted with some dismay.

Looking ahead

There is now heightened expectation over Mr Soong's visit to the mainland, which begins on Thursday.

Like the Nationalists, the PFP favours eventual reunification with China.

But recently, Mr Soong has established friendlier relations with President Chen.

The two men held their first talks in more than four years in February, and issued a 10-point communiqué, setting out areas of consensus on cross strait relations, among other issues.

But Mr Soong, who says he is going to China as a private individual on a bridge-building journey, has reportedly bristled at suggestions that he will act as an envoy or messenger for President Chen.

"It puts us in an awkward position," admitted PFP legislator Hwang Yih-jiau, who is travelling to China as part of Mr Soong's delegation.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, left, shakes hands with People First Party Chairman James Soong at the beginning of an inter party meeting, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005, in Taipei
James Soong (right) is to deliver a message on President Chen's behalf
"We are not envoys of President Chen or mediators. Mr Soong is head of a party with its own position.

"There is more pressure on us now... but it's manageable. Certainly there is more importance attached to this visit", he said.

Mr Hwang also conceded there had been some "benevolent rivalry" between his party and the Nationalists in their visits to the mainland - so closely timed together.

But he said it was "competition between friends", and that both were working for better relations and dialogue across the Taiwan Strait.

China will certainly be attaching a great deal of importance to Mr Soong's visit because of his recent contacts with President Chen.

The visit may carry less symbolism, but may offer more weight and substance, than Lien Chan's.

Whether it will help to widen the door to formal negotiations between China and Taiwan - and mark the start of a new chapter in their relations - still remains the big question.

China offers Taiwan giant pandas
03 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan head seeks Beijing talks
01 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Text of KMT-Beijing agreement
29 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Lien Chan's landmark trip
29 Apr 05 |  In Pictures
Lien's China trip highlights tensions
27 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Lien Chan
26 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Chinese law a warning to Taiwan
14 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific


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