With cross-strait tensions rising and the mainland accusing the United States of egging on Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, pundits are reaching for their dictionaries as Premier Wen Jiabao prepares for his visit to the United States next week. Anything Mr Wen or his hosts say about Taiwan will be sifted through with the zest of a lexicographer to detect any subtle shift on what Beijing calls the most important and most sensitive issue affecting Sino-US relations. In fact, a significant shift is taking place, though it may not be easy to detect it in the public statements of either side during the premier's four-day visit, which starts on Sunday. The central government appears ready to adopt a different approach, which is to enhance engagement and discussion with Washington over the Taiwan issue. For years, Beijing has publicly insisted Taiwan is China's internal issue. It has largely refused to discuss with Washington anything to do with the island's affairs, except to demand on every occasion that the US abide by the three Sino-US communiques on bilateral relations and stop selling arms to Taiwan. This usually leads to public outbursts and private curses on the part of Beijing whenever it sees the United States straying from the agreed lines. But the reality is that the US, as the biggest seller of arms to Taiwan, has been and will continue to have considerable influence over the island. Now Beijing is prepared to recognise this, and to sit down to talks with Washington - accepting that the administration of President George W. Bush has an unofficial but significant role to play on Taiwan. In future, the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office is expected to play a more important role in dealing with the US - an area which has been the domain of the Foreign Ministry. Zhou Mingwei, the English-speaking deputy minister of the office, recently led a delegation to the US and met top administration officials for talks on Taiwan. Such discussions and contacts will no doubt intensify in the future, aimed at dispelling any misunderstanding and clarifying issues. Officials believe the US has no intention of escalating the tensions across the Taiwan strait at a time when it needs China's co-operation and help on the Iraq issue and to curb nuclear proliferation in North Korea. The US sent a stern warning to Taipei just this week, saying it 'opposes' any referendum to push for independence - a message reportedly reinforced by the visit to Taiwan of a senior official from the National Security Council to ask Mr Chen to back off. That explains why, on Wednesday, deputy foreign minister Zhou Wenzhong could still describe bilateral relations as being the best in decades, despite the heightened tension over Taiwan.