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China-Taiwan Ties Boosted By `Breakthrough' Pact

China's major concession on repatriation and its desire to quiet anti-Chinese sentiment in Taiwan helped the accord

OFFICIAL enemies and close business partners, China and Taiwan have ironed out major issues on repatriating hijackers and illegal immigrants, signaling an upturn in their often- rocky relations.

The pact, announced on Sunday after four days of talks in Taipei, overrode recent tensions in relations between the two Chinas over the murders of Taiwanese tourists in China earlier this year.

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The negotiations in Taipei between Tang Shubei, vice-chairman of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, and Chiao Jen-ho, of the Straits Exchange Foundation of Taiwan, were held in an effort to get contacts between the quasi-official organizations of the two Chinas back on track. Mr. Tang was the highest-ranking Chinese official ever to visit Taiwan.

In what was called a ``major breakthrough,'' the two negotiators announced at a joint press conference that both sides had resolved roadblocks on the repatriation issue as well as fishing disputes. Five previous rounds of talks had stalled on disagreements over Taiwan's sovereignty and China's refusal to recognize the jurisdiction of Taiwanese courts.

A concession from China

The breakthrough resulted from a Chinese concession that Taiwan can exclude some hijackers from repatriation if a Taiwanese court found that they acted out of political or religious motives. Analysts speculate that the agreement was made possible because China sought to quiet anti-Chinese sentiment in Taiwan that grew out of the Qiandao Lake incident.

Both negotiators said a final agreement will only be signed after consultation with their governments. ``What is important is that we have reached consensus. Whether we sign sooner or later is not important,'' said Mr. Chiao, Taiwan's representative.

The agreement came despite fears that the talks would founder over Beijing's handling of the recent tourist deaths near Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province.

Earlier this year, ties soured after 24 Taiwanese tourists were among 32 people killed in a March 31 fire on a pleasure boat on Qiandao Lake in southeastern China. At first, local authorities claimed the fire was an accident, raising suspicions in Taiwan that Chinese officials were trying to cover up the involvement of renegade police or soldiers in the robbery and murder.

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In June, three young men accused in the incident were tried and executed by Chinese authorities, although the punishment has failed to alleviate suspicions and bitterness over the issue in Taiwan.

Trying to hammer out agreement

Fearing that the tragedy would permanently alienate the two Chinas, Taiwanese officials invited their Chinese counterparts for a new round of talks. Since an historic meeting between the heads of the two quasi-official cross-straits organizations in Singapore in April 1993, negotiators have been trying to hammer out an agreement on core issues.

``The tragedy has underscored for many Taiwanese what they already knew: China is a lawless society,'' a Taiwanese businessman visiting Beijing says.

``The Qiandao Lake incident has fueled calls for independence in Taiwan,'' says an Asian diplomat who follows cross-strait relations. ``That is unnerving for China.''

The new pact mirrors fluctuations in relations that have varied wildly over the years. After years of virulent anti-communism, saber-rattling, and shrill threats on both sides, relations have bounced back since China launched market-style reforms.

A flood of mainland investment by small and medium-size Taiwanese businesses triggered tentative quasi-official contacts despite continued official belligerence between the two sides. China claims Taiwan is a renegade province that must return to the mainland, while the Kuomintang government, in exile in Taiwan since its defeat by the Communists in 1949, still asserts its right to govern all China.

But the murder of the Taiwanese tourists, a lack of legal protections, and unimpressive results from many Taiwanese investments in China has cooled the investment fever. Last year, the Taiwan government reported new business investment in China dropped more than 60 percent to $2 billion.

Taiwan has also seen gains in its efforts to persuade other countries to recognize both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments. Although Taipei is unlikely to win a seat in the United Nations soon, the Taiwanese enjoy growing sympathy in the United States Congress.

That could make it easier for Taiwan to be allowed to rejoin the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the new World Trade Organization, which becomes the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade next year, Western analysts say. China has insisted that Taiwan cannot rejoin the world-trade forum before Beijing's application for membership is approved.

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