TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chen Shui-bian made a New Year's appeal to rival China to usher in the century by seeking more trade and "eternal peace" with Taiwan.
"With the coming of the new century, Taiwanese are anxiously hoping to improve relations [with the mainland] and achieve eternal peace across the Taiwan Strait," Chen said Saturday in a message broadcast live on television.
Chen urged Chinese leaders to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and allow the island to raise its international profile so the two sides can establish a "new framework for political integration."
Taiwan split from China amid civil war in 1949. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has threatened to attack unless the island agrees to eventually reunify.
" 'One China' essentially is not a problem," Chen said, referring to Beijing's policy requiring Taiwan to admit that it is an inseparable part of the mainland. But China must first "respect and understand" Taiwan's insistence that it have control over its own future, he said.
Relations have turned frosty since Chen was elected president in March. Chinese leaders deeply distrust him because he formerly advocated Taiwan's independence.
Chen has since softened his stance and said Taiwan will not seek independence unless China attacks.
Taiwan fears that accepting the "one China" policy would be tantamount to admitting Chinese rule over Taiwan.
Today, Taiwan ended a five-decade ban on direct shipping between two of its outlying islands and China. The move will also allow Chinese tourists to visit the islands, Quemoy and Matsu, which are several miles off the southern Chinese coast.
The move essentially decriminalizes the booming trade between fishermen and smugglers that has been going on for several years.
So far, Taiwan is opening the links without negotiating with China. Beijing has indicated that it will go along, but it has not warmly welcomed the move nor said how much it will cooperate.
Dennis Hickey, a Taiwan expert at Southwest Missouri State University, called China's cool reaction "another missed opportunity."
If China were more conciliatory with Taiwan, it could score valuable points with the Taiwanese public and make more progress toward its goal of unification, he said.
Chen's government is portraying its new policy as a possible prelude to what Beijing and Taiwanese businesses have long been demanding: direct trading and transportation links between Taiwan's main island and China.
Since Taiwan began allowing businesses to trade and invest in China a decade ago, the mainland has become Taiwan's No. 2 market after the United States. But because planes and ships aren't allowed to go directly there, the trade must flow through Hong Kong, Macao or another "third port," creating delays and raising costs.
The move illustrates Taiwan's willingness to lower its guard and calm tempers in an explosive hot spot where a conflict with China's massive military could quickly draw in the United States, Taiwan's longtime friend and most likely defender.