China lowers bamboo curtain with gift of pandas to Taiwan

You could call it panda diplomacy. A historic visit by the leader of Taiwan's opposition party, Lien Chan, to the Chinese mainland has ended with Beijing making the island a series of goodwill gestures, including the gift of two giant pandas.

The exotic animals are regarded as the ultimate Chinese diplomatic favour, and capped the ground-breaking tour described by Mr Lien, the leader of the Kuomintang, as a "journey of peace", which finished yesterday "very happily, smoothly and successfully".

But there were concerns in Taiwan that the gesture could be a Chinese trick.

Chen Yunlin, the director of the Chinese Communist Party's Taiwan Work Office, said he hoped the peace offering, widely anticipated by both sides, would not be rebuffed out of concerns for its political implications.

"We hope the pandas, with their tame nature, air of nobleness and cuddly looks will bring joy and laughter to the Taiwan compatriots, children in particular," he said.

But Joseph Wu, a leading Taiwanese policymaker, said Taipei was likely to be suspicious of Chinese diplomacy and would not welcome any gifts from Beijing if it were felt they were attempts to downgrade the island's status as a sovereign and democratic state.

A similar offer was rejected years ago by Taipei for fear it was part of a plot to forge ahead with plans for unification. China views the island as a renegade province. "If we accept the pandas that means we're admitting ourselves we're a local government," said Hsu Kuo-yung, a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. "Our lovely next generation is more important than these two lovely animals."

Important dignitaries visiting the country during the Cold War used to be regular recipients of pandas, lasting reminders of Chinese diplomacy in action. Most exports are now loaned rather than given.

China and Taiwan have reportedly discussed the gesture 10 times since 1992 but the island had neither been unable to provide a protected environment for the endangered species, nor felt the political motivations behind the gifts to be suitably neutral.

Hinting at the benefits Taipei might expect from reconciling with China, Beijing also announced the lifting of a ban on Chinese tourists travelling to the island and offered zero import tariffs on locally grown fruits.

But the friendly appearances of the diplomatic grand finale to Mr Lien's trip were undermined yesterday when Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, declined an invitation from Taiwan's President, Chen Shui-bian, to visit the island and see for himself "a sovereign, independent country".

Taiwanese leader is under pressure to seize back initiative from the opposition Kuomintang, also known as the Nationalist Party, and improve ties with Beijing. But Beijing has ruled out any thaw in relations until the Taiwanese ruling party abandons calls for formal independence and endorses a 1992 declaration that the island, together with the mainland country, form "One China".

The Taiwanese government is fervently in favour of formal independence for the island, while MrLien's opposition Kuomintang is fighting to rouse support for unification with the communist mainland.

Mr Lien's trip to China - the first such visit since Mao Zedong's victorious Communist forces drove Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland in 1949 - was part of a rash of efforts to isolate President Chen and deflect criticism from those in Taiwan who accuse him of selling out the island's interests. He will hope his high-profile diplomatic successes on the mainland have boosted his party's popularity at home.

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