By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Taiwan welcomes recent visits by opposition party leaders to mainland China as an "icebreaker" in relations between the island's democratic government and the communist leadership in Beijing, Taiwan's foreign minister said Tuesday.
But in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Tan Sun Chen held firm to the stance that talks should be held between the two governments without preconditions. He rejected Beijing's continued insistence that Taipei must first accept the principle of eventual reunification with China.
Tensions between China and Taiwan have eased somewhat with the visits to China of Kuomintang head Lien Chan and the leader of a smaller opposition party, James Soong. Both parties endorse reunification. The Chinese government clearly tried to use the visits to isolate the government of President Chen Shui-bian, whom it views as a dangerous advocate of eventual Taiwanese independence.
Despite China's pressure, Chen ruled out further moves for now to increase links across the Taiwan Strait, including allowing regularly scheduled direct flights between Taiwan and China. Taiwanese businessmen and their families, hundreds of thousands of whom now live and work in China, have pushed to ease the inconvenience of routing flights through Hong Kong. But the Taiwanese Foreign Minister cited security concerns about the reciprocal flow of Chinese into Taiwan that must be resolved first.
Chen was appointed foreign minister in 2004. He was educated in earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University and served for 20 years in the U.S. Department of Commerce, before returning to Taiwan.
Chen said the government continues to welcome the investment of Taiwanese businessmen in China, which he said totaled close to $100 billion over the last two decades. Taiwanese electronic firms have moved significant production of semiconductors and other key products over to China.
However, he expressed concern about China's attempts to use those economic links to intervene in Taiwanese politics. "If Taiwan depends too much on the Chinese market," Chen said, "the Chinese could try to use the economic tie as a means to apply political pressure. This has already happened."
He expressed confidence in the ties between Taiwan and the United States, despite what he called "ups and downs." The Bush administration has improved relations with Taiwan in certain areas, including offering new arms for purchase. But the White House has also sharply rebuked President Chen for moves toward independence that it considered unnecessarily provocative.
Relations have also been strained somewhat by the failure of the Chen government to secure parliamentary approval of an $18 billion arms package, which includes anti-missile systems, diesel submarines and anti-submarine aircraft. The arms are intended to counter an extensive Chinese military buildup aimed at part at giving China the ability to take control of the island by force, analysts believe.
"We don't want our friends to have second guesses about our determination to defend Taiwan," Chen said. He said the government may call a special session of the parliament to seek passage of the budget.
Chen echoed the recent comments of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling attention to China's rapid military buildup and questioning whether there is any threat to justify it. The Taiwanese official said the Chinese capability went well beyond anything needed to take Taiwan by force.
"China is trying to push away American influence in Asia," he said.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.