China breaks `cold war' with Taiwan to give aid to

EARTHQUAKE AFTERMATH Disaster assistance offer could ease relations between former enemies - if no strings are attached, says Taipei
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The Independent Online
FIRST THERE was ping-pong diplomacy when China and the United States used table tennis to melt decades of hostility. Now there are hopes that earthquake diplomacy will soften the harsh stand off between China and Taiwan, as it did with long-time adversaries Turkey and Greece last month.

In a goodwill gesture, China offered cash and materials to disaster- ravaged Taiwan only hours after the island was hit by a powerful earthquake on Tuesday. Taiwan, which is locked in a bitter struggle with Peking over its political future, indicated yesterday that it would accept the offer, as long as there were no strings attached. "If they offer to send people for relief work, they are more than welcome," said Jan Jyh-horng, deputy head of Taipei's Straits Exchange Foundation. "We hope this is a good beginning."

Relations between Peking and Taipei have been strained since July when the Taiwanese President, Lee Teng-hui, angered China by declaring bilateral relations should be on a "special state-to-state'' basis.Peking, which has threatened to invade if Taiwan declared independence, saw the move as a lurch towards statehood and has been heaping pressure on Lee ever since.

But the propaganda stopped when the earthquake devastated a great swath of Taiwan, with the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, immediately offered sympathy and assistance for the island's "agony',' saying the people on the both sides of the Taiwan Strait were "as closely linked as flesh and blood''. In addition to pounds 70,000 of aid and pounds 40,000 of relief materials, China's semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait also sent a letter of sympathy to its Taiwanese counterpart - the first written communication since Peking froze contacts.

Asked if China would shelve its dispute with Taiwan because of the quake, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Zhang Qiyue, said politics and the quake were "two completely different subjects''.

But Hong Kong's press expressed optimism yesterday that China's aid offer could help to soften the stand off. The South China Morning Post said the capacity for compassion could help to overcome the decades of division. "There is a similar change of tone across the strait as Peking drops its belligerent stance, and speaks of the blood ties that unite, rather than of politics which divide," the newspaper said.