Taiwan and China restart unity talks

AFTER FIVE years of nervous stand-off, Chinese and Taiwanese negotiators will resume reunification talks tomorrow in Shanghai.

Just three years ago the two countries looked to be on the verge of war as their armies massed on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and the American 7th Fleet was mobilised to signal that an outb`reak of hostilities could have had international repercussions.

Since then the battle has been verbal. The military on both sides has been stood down. On a recent visit to Taiwan's biggest airbase, the CCK Airbase in the middle of the island, the pilots were on constant alert but keen to stress that they were far from a war footing.

"We're just patrolling," insisted Major Frank Hsu. "Patrolling means I have fighters here, so it tells mainland China please don't come here. It's like having a dog in your house. We say we love our dogs but it's better if you don't come here to see them."

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait the Chinese forces have been equally punctilious about not provoking the Taiwanese.

The calm on the military front is underlined by a number of developments elsewhere which, when pieced together, suggest that the thaw in cross- Straits relations has begun even if it is yet to be formally acknowledged during this week's meetings.

It seems that this has something to do with the leaders of both sides wanting to make their mark on history. An official in President Lee Teng- hui's office said, "Never underestimate the pull of history when you analyse the motives of relations between us and the mainland."

President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan will soon step down from office and wants to have achieved some breakthrough in relations with China, while President Jiang Zemin of China badly wants to complete the recovery of Hong Kong and Macau with the bigger prize of drawing Taiwan back into the Chinese fold. President Jiang knows that Taiwan is highly reluctant to rejoin the Chinese mainland and realises that an offer of reunification has to be made attractive.

Last month Tang Jiaxuan, China's foreign minister, told an American audience that once Taiwan was reunited with the mainland it would "enjoy a greater autonomy than Hong Kong and Macau". The tone of his speech was widely seen as highly conciliatory.

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