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China-Taiwan ice thawing?

Although Taiwan has officially spurned one honeyed offer after another from its rivals in Peking, recent unofficial encounters indicate some loosening-up on both sides.

The conciliatory gestures include:

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* Scientists and scholars from the mainland and Taiwan now commonly meet and talk amicably at international conferences in third countries. In addition, Taiwanese students at US colleges are encouraged to talk to fellow Chinese from the other side, and there is a standing invitation for the latter to break their journey home in Taiwan.

* Visits to the mainland by Taiwan Chinese are no longer impossible, especially for those who can obtain a passport from a country that has diplomatic ties with China.

* There is even two-way trade of sorts, although it has to pass through Hong Kong first. Last year, unofficial estimates put this trade at around $50 million. It is expected to increase considerably this year.

Taiwan buys medicine and gourmet foodstuffs from the mainland, while shipping out machinery and consumer goods. The products often appear in Chinese shops bearing their original "Made in the Republic of China" labels.

These gestures, however, by no means break down the longstanding suspicion and hostility between the two Asian rivals, symbolized by the way in which the Taiwanese have rebuffed Peking's official overtures ever since the latter seriously began wooing them last year.

In January 1979, Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping assured visiting Americans that Taiwan could retain autonomous status, preserve its socioeconomic system, defense forces, and high living standards.

Deng, who wants to go down in history as the man who achieved reunification, later told a Japanese publisher: "Giving up the Republic of China title is the only thing we ask Taiwan to do."

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The Taipei government quickly denounced these moves as tricks and reaffirmed the long-avowed determination to liberate the mainland. Foreign Minister Chung Fu-Sung recently declared that anticommunism and recovery of the mainland were the basic policies of his government and "to abandon [this] would be dangerous and contradictory to our basic interests."

In February 1979, China reopened telephone lines to Taiwan, which remained silent. Two months later, an invitation to the Canton trade fair was shunned.

Since then, Peking has promised that all foreign investments in Taiwan would remain safe. It has also put out a standing offer to resume air and sea trade links. Taiwan, however, has refused all blandishments.

Under US urging to be more self-confident and less reactive in dealing with Peking, the Taiwanese are becoming more relaxed and pragmatic in the belief that economically at least they have nothing more to prove. The 17 million people on Taiwan now have a per capita annual income of more than $1,800, about seven times the mainland average.

Even Deng Xiaoping has admitted it will be decades before China can rival Taiwan's living standards, and until the mainland can gain economic superiority, there is little reason Taiwan should be attracted to a life under communism, no matter how loose the ties. Taiwan is pushing an industrialization program designed to ensure the wide economic gap is maintained.

If the nationalists have not given up hope of regaining control of the mainland, they are equally convinced that Peking has not forsaken plans to recapture Taiwan by force. No matter how remote that might seem to the outside world, Taiwanese officials insist they have no intention of relaxing their vigilance -- although the military presence is more muted now than in the past.

Exact figures on defense expenditures are not available, being lumped in with foreign affairs as about 45 percent of the national budget.

In a recent policy speech, Premier Y. S. Sun said the government was giving priority to improving military training and modernizing weapons. (A two-year conscription is still in force.)

The government considers getting high-performance aircraft to replace aging F 5E interceptors its most pressing need. It has been lobbying for years in Washington, without success, for aircraft such as the F4 Phantom, the F16, and F 18.

Two leading US aircraft manufacturers, General Dynamics and the Northrop Corporation, reportedly are ready to sell Taiwan a new generation fighter known as the FX. But it remains uncertain whether Congress will approve the sale.

Rather than a direct invasion from the mainland, a more plausible military threat is a submarine-mounted blockade of the Taiwanese west coast facing the mainland. Most of the population lives in this area, and its industries are clustered around Taipei in the north, a new port of Taichung in the center, and Kaiosiung in the south.

As a result, Taiwan is stepping up development of ports at Suao and Hualien on the mountainous, sparsely populated east coast to beat any blockade.

The Taipei government's strategy is to maintain air superiority over the Taiwan straits and strengthen its antisubmarine warfare capability. But it is worried that the Chinese Air Force's modernization program is eroding the advantage Taiwan has enjoyed in recent years.

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