The conciliatory tone of Vice-Premier Qian Qichen's overture towards Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party seems to have caught many analysts and interested parties by surprise, not least the DPP and Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. So far, response to the details of Mr Qian's speech from Taiwanese political circles has been cautious, largely because some time will be needed to digest Beijing's highly significant change of emphasis. But what is already clear is that Beijing has played a shrewd hand in changing at least the style of its approach to the cross-straits problem. At a stroke it has simultaneously weakened any opportunity for President George W. Bush to take a combative line on the Taiwan issue during the forthcoming Sino-US summit, as well as placing the onus firmly on Taiwan to respond with an equally placatory message. The voice coming from Beijing is a far more pragmatic one than in the past. It is one that appears to accept that, following the Taiwan elections last December, the DPP is here to stay, at least for the time being. By declaring that the vast majority of its members do not favour independence from the mainland, Beijing has neatly side-stepped the problem of having any dealings with a party elected on a pro-independence platform. Whether Mr Qian's analysis of the DPP's make-up is accurate is perhaps doubtful, but it matters little. The fact is that relations between the mainland and Taiwan have a long history of being built around semantic fudges, obfuscation and wishful thinking. This may not be ideal, but it has kept the peace. And it is in the interests of both Beijing and Taipei to arrive at a method of defusing tension and therefore maintaining and developing economic links. Beijing is certain to gain international approval for softening its approach to Taiwan. But the mainland's fundamental position has not and will not change - that is that any dialogue with Taiwan representatives must be on the basis of the one-China consensus, arrived at between Beijing and the Kuomintang in Singapore in 1992. This is Beijing's bottom line and Mr Chen's response to Mr Qian's overture will have to recognise this. Mr Chen is therefore now left in the unenviable position of having to respect the one-China principle when dealing with the mainland, while also representing a party that promulgates independence for Taiwan. Mr Qian has created an opportunity for a calmer, more constructive relationship between Beijing and Taipei. It is now up to Mr Chen to plot a political course - however difficult this may be - that will successfully exploit that opportunity.