Taiwanese president takes office, seeks to calm China

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan's new president tried to defuse dangerously tense relations with China in his inaugural speech Saturday, urging the neighboring communist giant to discuss long-standing disputes and seek peace.

Speaking outside the red brick presidential palace, President Chen Shui-bian told an audience of thousands, ''The Cold War has ended. It is time for the two sides to cast aside the hostilities left from the old era.''

Chen's 50-minute speech had been billed as one of his best opportunities to relieve building pressure to forge a diplomatic breakthrough with China, which has repeatedly threatened to attack.

Since a civil war split the two sides 51 years ago, China has wanted the island 80 miles off its southeast coast to reunify with the mainland. Seeking independence is grounds for a war, Beijing has warned repeatedly.

On Saturday, Chen repeated his pledge not to seek independence as long as China does not attack: ''As long as communist China has no intention to use force, I assure within my term of office I will not declare independence.''

Chen's address did not include the words Chinese leaders have been wanting to hear: that Taiwan is an inseparable part of one China. He has refused to accept Beijing's so-called ''one China principle,'' fearing that agreeing to it would entail recognizing that the communist government is the ruler of that one China.

Becoming part of an impoverished China ruled by an authoritarian regime has never appealed to the Taiwanese, who have built a democracy with a thriving economy on an island about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

But several times during his speech, Chen referred to the shared ancestry of Taiwanese and Chinese.

''The people across the Taiwan Strait share the same ancestral, cultural and historical background,'' said Chen, whose ancestors came from China.

Washington has long been sympathetic to Taiwan's concerns and has been one of the few nations to sell defensive weapons to the island. The United States is also Taiwan's most likely defender if war breaks out, and U.S. Navy ships have cruised to the Taiwan Strait in times of crisis.

Chen's inauguration marked the first time in China's 5,000 years of history that a democratically elected opposition leader was sworn in as the leader of a Chinese state.

In his raspy voice, Chen faced the red, blue and white flag of the Republic of China - Taiwan's official name - and took the oath of office in the presidential palace. He promised that he will ''safeguard the security of the state and will no way betray the people's trust.''

Chen, who at 49 is Taiwan's youngest president, is a former maritime lawyer who got involved in politics by defending democracy activists arrested during the island's repressive martial law era, which ended in 1987 and gave way to a robust democracy.

The former Taipei mayor's stunning upset in the March 18 presidential election ended the Nationalist Party's five-decade-long control of Taiwan's presidency. He replaces retiring President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's first popularly elected leader.

Since Chen's election upset, Beijing's leaders have allowed him a honeymoon of sorts, saying they will closely watch his words and actions for a while.

China is deeply suspicious of Chen because he was once an outspoken supporter of independence. His Democratic Progressive Party still favors letting voters decide if the island should break away for good.

However, Chen has recently softened his position, saying such a referendum should only be held if China attacks. His campaign opponents said this was a ploy to win votes from most Taiwanese, who don't want reunification now but also oppose independence because it might bring war.

So far, Chen has worked hard to build up good will with Beijing. He's offered to hold a peace summit and discuss Beijing's ''one-China principle.'' He has also said he would consider forming a loose confederation with China.

On Saturday, Chen said, ''War is a failure of humanity. It is the greatest harm to freedom, democracy and human rights.''


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