HONG KONG — The political atmosphere in the Taiwan Strait has improved considerably in recent days following the inauguration of nonstop charter flights between the two sides during the Chinese New Year holidays.

Added to this is the appointment of the pragmatic Frank Hsieh as the new prime minister of Taiwan and a major speech by Jia Qinglin, fourth ranking leader within the Chinese Communist Party, which gives the views of the new generation of Chinese leaders.

Last week also saw the visit to Taiwan by two leading mainland officials to attend the funeral of Koo Chen-fu, head of the Straits Exchange Foundation, the ostensibly nongovernmental body set up by Taiwan to deal with its mainland counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. ARATS vice chairman Sun Yafu and secretary general Li Yafei were sent to Taiwan to represent the 90-year-old ARATS chairman, Wang Daohan, at the funeral service.

The assumption by Hsieh of the premiership last Tuesday is particularly significant. He is someone whom the mainland does not regard as a diehard “separatist” like President Chen Shui-bian. In the few days since his appointment, Hsieh has made it clear that he will halt the “rectification of names” campaign launched by his predecessor under which official agencies and state corporations — such as China Airlines — would change their names and use “Taiwan” instead of “China.”

In his first press conference since his appointment, Hsieh adopted a moderate tone toward China. “I think it is essential to improve the atmosphere between the two sides,” he said. “We should stop policies or language that provokes one another.” His administration would move toward “reconciliation and cooperation.”

Such an attitude has been missing from the top echelons of the Taiwan government. Chen is to be complimented for picking Hsieh to head the government. The president has indicated that he wants to mend fences with his domestic opposition and with Beijing. The best thing he can do now is to keep his mouth shut and let Hsieh do the talking.

Hsieh’s conciliatory approach was evident even five years ago, when he was mayor of Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. At the time, he was negotiating with the mayor of Xiamen, on the mainland, for an exchange of visits in an attempt to use “city diplomacy” to break an impasse between the two sides. He publicly said “Xiamen and Kaohsiung are two cities in one country,” thus indicating acceptance of “one China.” Unfortunately, the visits never took place because Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party would not give their consent.

The new leadership in China also appears ready to be more pragmatic. Jia, in his speech, said Beijing, which had pointedly ignored Chen in the past, would not be “unwilling to talk just because someone is in power.” However, Jia made clear that Beijing still insists that Chen first embrace the “one China” principle, which stipulates that Taiwan and the mainland are part of one country.

While Jia’s speech represents a small step forward, Beijing needs to take much bigger steps if progress is to be made. China should understand that if it insists on the one China principle it will have to accept ambiguity, as in 1992 when Taiwan insisted that it and Beijing were both free to interpret one China in its own way.

The new premier may still find himself at loggerheads with the mainland on the sensitive issue of constitutional reform. Hsieh has said he believes reform is necessary, citing as an example the need to define the relationship between the legislature and the Cabinet.

Beijing sees Taiwan’s constitutional reform efforts as a step toward a declaration of independence. Hsieh will have a difficult job convincing Beijing that this is not the case.

At this juncture, both Beijing and Taiwan seem to want to improve their relationship. It is now conceivable that the next six months to two years may turn out to be opportune rather than a time of peril. Such an opportunity must not be missed, but it will require deft handling by both Taiwan and Beijing.

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