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TAIPEI — The reopening of the so-called three links — trade, transportation and communication — between Taiwan and China may still be some way off, but in the meantime it appears Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) has sidestepped the ban and forged its own direct link with China.

Since the party’s humbling defeat in the presidential election in March, a steady procession of KMT lawmakers and officials have journeyed to China via Hong Kong to meet with Chinese officials in Beijing, all under the pretense of “cultural” visits. In late November, KMT Vice Chairman Wu Po-hsiung met with China’s Vice Premier Qian Qichen for a 30-minute discussion. The meeting was the first high-level contact between KMT and Chinese Communist Party leaders since Zhou Enlai left Nanjing for Yenan after peace talks between the two parties broke down in 1946.

Though little was discussed at the Wu-Qian meeting, a lot was said. Most importantly, it appeared that Wu was laying the foundations for a historic visit to China by KMT Chairman Lien Chan.

A year ago, the suggestion that a KMT leader would consider making a visit to Beijing would have been met with unbridled derision. At that time, then President and KMT Chairman Lee Teng-hui had infuriated his mainland brethren by appearing to drop the convenient facade that is “one China” and to redefine relations with the mainland as “special state-to-state.” The response from Beijing was as predictable as it was unnerving.

So what has brought these once mortal enemies together under the same roof, now promising to build closer ties? The answer is a “common foe,” Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.

“Though the two sides [KMT and CCP] are historical enemies,” said National Taiwan University Professor Philip Yang, “they are at least united in the goal of eventual reunification. Chen has yet to embrace that notion.”

According to the KMT, Chen’s inability to deal with China, and the meltdown in cross-strait dialogue that has occurred since he took office, is in large part responsible for Taiwan’s faltering economy and recent political troubles.

“Business leaders have been pushing for the three links to be opened, but how can they be if there is no dialogue between the two sides,” said Shao Yu-ming, the KMT’s vice secretary general. “The stock market has been cut in half, unemployment is rising and political squabbles have paralyzed the government. They [the Chen administration] have dug a very deep hole and I don’t know how they are going to get out of it. They will have to come back to our position of the 1992 consensus.”

The fabled “1992 consensus” is the penny upon which the whole debate in Taiwan presently spins. It refers to an agreement reached between the KMT and the CCP in 1992 that led to historic talks between the two sides a year later. The KMT claims that the consensus reached was that both sides accepted there was but “one China,” with both sides free to interpret what that meant.

“For the KMT, ‘one China’ means the Republic of China,” explained Shao. “For them [Beijing] it means the People’s Republic of China. Yet within this framework we agree that we are both marching toward a reunited China in the future sometime. That’s our position.”

Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party is not so certain that the acceptance of the KMT’s version of events in 1992 will dissolve the cross-strait gridlock.

“The problem with the issue is that nobody knows exactly what is the 1992 consensus,”‘ said Wu Nai-jen, the DPP’s secretary general. “In Taiwan, the opposition says that the 1992 consensus is one China with both sides free to interpret the meaning. But in Beijing they say the 1992 consensus is to accept one China. The KMT want Chen’s administration to return to the 1992 consensus. But we have to ask: return to what? If we return to the stance wanted by the opposition, Beijing is still not satisfied. If we satisfy Beijing, we sell out Taiwan.”

Yet despite the deft maneuvering and semantic games played by both the KMT and the DPP, the issue is unlikely to be agreed upon in the near term.

And that is precisely the point. Those spoken to are united in the belief that the issue as it now stands has very little to do with China and everything to do with the crucial legislative election scheduled for December next year.

At present, the KMT holds a majority 115 seats in the 220-member assembly. Yet its performance in opposition has led to an exodus of support.

The People First Party, which holds 17 seats and is led by James Soong, who favors unification, is expected to steal many seats away from the KMT in the election. Meanwhile, the DPP, which holds 67 seats, is hoping to gain a majority and allow Chen some breathing room in the second half of his term.

To do that, Chen must walk a fine line, on the one hand appealing to the majority of Taiwanese who support the status quo in relations with China, and on the other not alienating his core voters, who support independence. His response so far has been to duck the issue.

The KMT, on the other hand, has moved in the other direction to win back support. Its recent attempt to recall the president over his cancellation of a nuclear-power plant backfired when polls showed the move had no support. Now it has looked to China for salvation.

“These visits to China are clearly an attempt to set the agenda. They are trying to remind the people that they have had long experience in dealing with China, in sharp contrast to the DPP’s inexperience,” said Taiwanese political analyst Leng Tse-kung.

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