BOAO, China – Taiwan's next vice president sat down with Chinese leader Hu Jintao for a brief but historic chat Saturday, raising hopes that the rivals would begin to ease six decades of hostilities.
The meeting between Hu and Vincent Siew marked the first time such a high-ranking elected figure from Taiwan visited a Chinese president since the two sides split in 1949, when Communists took over Beijing and Taiwan refused to be ruled by the new government.
The 20-minute talk, held on the sidelines of a conference between business and world leaders on Hainan Island, was largely symbolic, focusing on boosting economic ties.
Siew, a 69-year-old technocrat and economics expert, said the meeting was "friendly," and he left with a positive impression of Hu. "I believe he's a pragmatic man," he told reporters.
Hu said that both sides faced a historic opportunity and they should work together for more progress, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported early Sunday. He said Beijing wanted to "think deep about cross-Straits economic exchanges and cooperation under the new circumstances."
China has repeatedly threatened to attack Taiwan if the island of 23 million people refuses to unify eventually. Washington has warned Beijing that U.S. forces might defend the island — one of Asia's most vibrant democracies. America sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996 when China tested missiles close to Taiwan.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was attending the Boao conference, said the meeting was "very good news for the region."
"The two sides have begun down a new path. ... I think we are at the beginning of a new phase in relations between the parties in Asia," he told reporters after meeting with Siew on Sunday.
Relations have been especially bumpy under outgoing Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian. Beijing was deeply suspicious of Chen, who steps down next month, even before he was elected in 2000 because his Democratic Progressive Party leans toward formal independence for Taiwan.
Beijing appears to favor Siew and his Nationalist Party political partner, President-elect Ma Ying-jeou. They were elected last month after promising voters they would soothe relations with China — just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.
Neither oppose unification, but they insist the thorny issue is best settled by future generations. Most Taiwanese feel deeply uneasy about being part of the mainland as long as it is undemocratic and controlled by the Communist Party.
After Saturday's meeting, Siew said he didn't expect any quick political breakthroughs. But he said he told Hu the two sides should begin talking and make economic issues the top priority.
"Both sides should face up to reality, usher in the future, set aside disputes and pursue a win-win situation," Siew said.
He noted that in recent years "politics have been cold but business has been hot" between the two sides, a reference to the thousands of Taiwanese companies investing in China.
More than 4 million Taiwanese visit the mainland each year, Siew said, adding that he hopes to open up Taiwan to more Chinese tourists. To encourage traveling, weekend charter flights should start between China and Taiwan, which still don't allow regular direct air travel, he said.
"Reality proves that cross-strait economic development is the common wish of people on both sides," he said.
To stress his interest in business, Siew's delegation included one of Taiwan's most powerful businessmen, Morris Chang, chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world's largest producer of made-to-order chips.
Chang agreed that the meeting's atmosphere was "extremely good" and said Hu gave positive responses to Siew's ideas. But he cautioned that a gradual approach must be taken with China. "Rome wasn't built in a day," he said.
Beijing still refuses to recognize Taiwan's elected government, acknowledging Siew only as chairman of the Cross-Strait Common Market Foundation, a private group that seeks to build economic cooperation between China and Taiwan.
Some experts said the Hu-Siew meeting was a significant sign that the relationship was improving. But both sides would have to eventually tackle the contentious key sovereignty issue — whether Taiwan should be ruled by the Communist mainland.
"Now, there is no immediate danger in the cross-Strait relations," said Peter Chen, a China expert at Taiwan's National Chengchi University. "Yet the conflict over Taiwan's sovereignty will remain over the long run."