Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A historic trip to China by the leader of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist party is being closely watched on the island, where public opinion is sharply divided over the wisdom of the visit and suspicions abound about Beijing's motives in inviting him.
Lien Chan is the first leader of the Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) party to visit mainland China since the KMT government fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to Mao Tse-tung's Communists in 1949.
Heading a 60-member delegation, his self-styled "journey of peace" which began Tuesday in the city of Nanjing, is due to culminate with a meeting with President Hu Jintao on Friday.
Lien, who will also visit his birthplace and deliver a lecture at a Beijing university, said he was going with an attitude of "how can we shake off our past entanglements ... and move towards a peaceful future."
Lien's visit comes at a time Beijing has drawn widespread criticism for passing an "anti-secession" law permitting the use of armed force to prevent Taiwan - which China considers a renegade province - from formalizing its de facto independence.
China has deployed hundreds of missiles along its coastline facing the island, and its military buildup has set off alarm bells in Taipei and Washington.
Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's independence-leaning president, initially opposed the trip, but shortly before it began gave his guarded blessing to what he regards as a private visit, saying he welcomed any move to reduce tension across the Taiwan Strait.
But amid speculation that Lien and his hosts may conclude a treaty symbolically ending the civil war, Chen's government also made it clear that the KMT leader had no right to sign any agreement with China without Taipei's consent.
The KMT ruled all of China prior to 1949, and after moving to Taiwan, ruled the island autocratically for five decades before losing power to Chen's pro-democracy party in 2000. Chen was a second term in 2004.
Opinion polls show that views on the trip is divided, with detractors say Lien, 69, is seeking personal glory and a legacy before retiring while giving Beijing the opportunity to exploit political divisions on the island.
Supporters and opponents clashed violently at Taiwan's international airport when Lien left.
In contrast to the president's cautious approval, his foreign minister, Tan Sun Chen, said Lien's visit would have a serious impact on Taiwan's efforts to draw international attention to China's anti-secession law.
"While our diplomatic staff are busy explaining our stance on that ill-intentioned legislation to their host countries to win their support for our national cause, Lien's China visit has baffled those same countries," the Central News Agency quoted him as saying.
The foreign minister said Lien, who has himself held the foreign affairs portfolio in a previous KMT government, should have known better.
"He should have considered the timing of his visit," which would hurt Taiwan's national interests and international image.
He also compared Lien's trip with visits to North Vietnam by U.S. lawmakers during the Vietnam War.
President Chen, meanwhile, said in Taipei that he understood the anxieties voiced by "many people" who worried that the KMT was using the visit to damage the government while giving Beijing further opportunity to "divide and conquer" Taiwan.
He said Taiwan's people had to unite in the face of the growing threat from the mainland, and proposed holding talks with Lien and the leader of another opposition party, James Soong, on Lien's return from China.
The three should hold candid discussions to build a consensus on the country's policies towards the mainland, Chen said. Taiwan needed to speak with one voice when dealing with China.
Soong has also been invited to visit the mainland, and plans to do so after Lien returns. Like the KMT, Soong's People First Party favors eventual political reunification with China.
'Jeopardizing national security'
Last week, a former KMT leader and Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui - who since retiring has become a strong backer of Taiwanese independence - spoke out against the visits, saying Lien and Soong were jeopardizing national security by cozying up to Beijing.
The only way to resolve the question of Taiwan's future was to have the international community participate, Lee said, adding that the United States and Japan should join China and Taiwan in negotiating an end to the dispute.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington that the U.S. supported "direct dialogue" between China and Taiwan, and welcomed the expansion of contacts across the Strait.
Earlier, however, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of China and Taiwan issues, Randall Schriver, noted that any real progress in breaking the impasse would require Beijing speaking to Taiwan's government itself.
In a poll commissioned by the Taiwan Thinktank, 45.5 percent of responded approved of Lien's plan to meet with Chinese leaders while 42.1 percent objected.
Just over 50 percent of respondents thought China's approach towards Taiwan was more hostile than a year ago, while 20.5 percent saw China as "friendlier" than before.
Two-thirds of respondents in the same survey said they opposed any peace agreement that would result in Taiwan's status being downgraded to that of a local authority within the People's Republic of China.
On the mainland, a poll conducted by the Social Survey Institute found 71 percent of respondents supported the view that visits by Taiwanese opposition leaders would "broaden the road for reunification."
In an editorial that expressed doubts about the wisdom of Lien's visit, the Taipei Times said China should take the first step towards resolving the impasse by respecting the reality that today's Taiwan was "a sovereign and independent entity."
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