BEIJING - China criticized the inauguration speech of Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian, yesterday but offered a possible way to defuse the tensions that have roiled the Taiwan Strait since summer.
Despite calling Chen's address "vague" and "short of sincerity," the mainland suggested it might resume negotiations with Taipei if both sides returned to an earlier agreement on the sensitive issue of "One China."
In a written statement, Beijing said it would like to renew talks if Taiwan adheres to a 1992 formula in which each government "will express in its own way orally that both sides across the Straits stick to the One China principle."
Although the phrasing is a bit confusing, the statement suggests that the two rivals might be able to maintain their own definitions of "One China," easing the path back to the negotiating table.
Beijing's response yesterday came after a speech in which Chen refused to endorse the "One China" principle but struck a conciliatory tone toward the mainland. The moderate nature of China's initial reaction seemed a welcome sign in the high-stakes game of semantics that has spanned decades and played a critical role in keeping the peace among China, Taiwan and the island's longtime friend, the United States.
China has viewed Taiwan as a breakaway province since Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled there in defeat a half-century ago at the end of the Chinese civil war. The authoritarian leaders in Beijing have vowed to take back the island by force if necessary. Taiwan, however, is a de facto independent state with its own military and a thriving democratic system. It has said it will consider reunification only if China becomes a democracy.
The two sides have avoided armed conflict by subscribing to the fiction that there is one China. Last summer, former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui sparked the current tensions by scrapping the "One China" policy, saying Taiwan and the mainland should negotiate on a "special state-to-state basis." The comments sent Beijing into a frenzy of anger and prompted China to suspend talks.
In March, Chen won the presidency and toppled the Nationalist Party, which had ruled Taiwan for more than 50 years. The election sent shock waves across the mainland for several reasons.
Chen's Democratic Progressive Party has supported Taiwanese independence. More important, the Nationalists lost because they were deeply corrupt and appeared incapable of reform, problems that many Chinese attribute to the Communist Party.
Last week, an article in a mainland newspaper mentioned the threat of war if Chen did not embrace the premise that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is a part of it. Walking a careful line yesterday, Chen would say only that "we believe that the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future 'One China.'"
Chen's unwillingness to go further irritated Chinese leaders but did not inspire the bellicose rhetoric they have exhibited in the past. Beijing complained that the new president should have simply endorsed the "One China" principle as a present condition.
"Obviously, his 'goodwill reconciliation' lacks sincerity," said the statement, which was issued jointly by the Taiwan Work Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and China's Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council.
As a condition of resuming talks, Beijing also demanded yesterday that Taiwan not push former President Lee's "state-to-state" principle. Chen had addressed that concern hours earlier after his swearing-in as Taiwan's second directly elected president.
In his speech, Chen promised not to enshrine the "state-to-state" principle in the constitution. He also pledged that Taiwan would not formally declare independence so long as China didn't attack.
"I think, on the whole, it's quite a clever speech," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong. "I think he struck a very savvy balance between the pro-Taiwan sentiment and showed China that he is ready to negotiate."
Beijing's moderate tone yesterday might be attributed to several factors. This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on permanent normal trading rights for China, which is connected to the country's bid to join the World Trade Organization. The vote is expected to be close, and any threats from Beijing would play into the hands of the measure's opponents, who include human rights advocates and labor leaders.
Beijing's relatively conciliatory approach might also mark an acknowledgement of political reality. Taiwan is a highly successful democracy with a growing sense of national identity. Supporting a "One China" principle, which essentially negates that identity, would be political suicide for a Taiwanese leader.
And, perhaps most important, the longer China waits to reopen talks, the further away Taiwan is likely to drift.