IN RECENT MONTHS, China has adopted a relatively conciliatory stance towards Taiwan. This was also reflected in President Jiang Zemin's opening address to the 16th party congress last Friday.
One example was his assertion that: 'There is only one China in the world. Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China.'
This formulation was first used by Vice-Premier Qian Qichen earlier this year. The reassertion of this formula by Mr Jiang makes it clear this is now Beijing's official position. Beijing no longer claims that 'one China' means the People's Republic of China, of which Taiwan is an integral part.
Mr Jiang went on to say: 'China's sovereignty and territorial integrity brook no division. We firmly oppose all words and deeds aimed at creating 'Taiwan independence', 'two Chinas', or 'one China, one Taiwan'.'
As a statement of principle, this sounds very high minded. But it is unclear what it means in practice. After all, Hong Kong had been separated from China for over 150 years until 1997. And Macau had been separated from China for some 400 years. So China's sovereignty and territorial integrity were certainly divided for hundreds of years, and the People's Republic of China went along with this for most of its existence.
What Mr Jiang seemed to be saying, then, was that China will not tolerate any permanent separation of what it considers part of its territory.
But if China could accept foreign occupation of part of its territory for 400 years, it is hard to see why it should be less tolerant of another Chinese regime governing part of the country.
Mr Jiang did not repeat Mr Qian's more recent assertion that direct links between the two sides - involving mail, trade and transport - are to be described as cross-strait links rather than domestic ones within one country. But Mr Jiang did say that such links 'serve the common interests of compatriots on both sides' and so there is 'every reason to take practical steps' to promote such links. The implication seems to be that the issue need not be politicised.
In his address, Mr Jiang made another seemingly conciliatory gesture, appealing to Taiwan to put aside political differences and resume dialogue. 'On the basis of the one-China principle, let us shelve for now certain political disputes and resume the cross-strait dialogue and negotiations as soon as possible,' he said.
However, while this sounded conciliatory, he actually imposed a political precondition for any resumption of talks: Taiwan must first accept the 'one China' principle.
In fact, Beijing does not envisage talks with the government of Taiwan, but rather with political parties and individuals there. This was made clear by Mr Jiang when he went on to say: 'We are willing to exchange views with all political parties and personages in all circles in Taiwan on the development of cross-strait relations and the promotion of peaceful reunification.'
Peace and democracy
Perhaps predictably, in Taipei, President Chen Shui-bian, the day after Mr Jiang's speech, also called for the resumption of cross-strait dialogue. The Taiwan leader also had a precondition for dialogue - peace and democracy.
Mr Jiang, in his report, reiterated Beijing's refusal to renounce the use of force in any attempt at reunification of the mainland and Taiwan. 'Our position of not undertaking to renounce the use of force is not directed at our Taiwan compatriots,' he said. 'It is aimed at foreign forces' attempts to interfere in China's reunification and the Taiwan separatist forces' schemes for 'Taiwan independence'.'
But in Taipei, Mr Jiang's remarks were seen as anything but reassuring. Mr Chen, in what was seen as a response to Mr Jiang's remarks, asserted that Taiwan must not lower its guard. 'Everybody must realise that if we do not have adequate national defences, the People's Republic of China will have our government and people at its beck and call,' he said. 'If we can't defend our national security, why would China negotiate with us?'
Evidently, the gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait remains as wide as ever. The mere repetition of each side's position is unlikely to lead to the resumption of dialogue.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator
There were several typographical errors in yesterday's Observer column, when the term 'blue bill' was used instead of 'white bill'. A corrected version can be seen at www.scmp.com