Taiwan's new president offers China dialogue
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's new president took office on Tuesday with a historic offer to reopen dialogue with China, which claims the island as its territory, but pledged to maintain Taipei's existing self-rule and separate international profile.
Ma Ying-jeou, 57, the Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate and a former Taipei mayor, took over from Chen Shui-bian of the rival Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), beginning a four-year term after his landslide win in March.
Chen and Ma shook hands and then walked to the presidential office for the official handover, with a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, founder of modern China, and Taiwan's flag in the background.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT forces fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary, if it declares independence.
The two sides have not talked since the 1990s.
"The normalization of economic and cultural relations is the first step to a win-win solution," Ma said in his inaugural speech at a packed arena, with 540 foreign dignitaries attending. "Accordingly, we are ready to resume consultations."
But in his speech, unseen on Chinese state-run TV, Ma pledged neither to seek independence nor unify with China.
"Taiwan doesn't just want security and prosperity," he said. "It wants dignity. Only when Taiwan is no longer being isolated in the international arena can cross-Strait relations move forward with confidence."
China opposes Taiwan membership in the United Nations and other bodies that require statehood to join.
Ma said he would strengthen ties with Taiwan's major ally, the United States, and "cherish" relations with its existing 23 diplomatic allies, which Taiwan uses to push its agenda in international organizations dominated by China and its roughly 170 partners.
Taiwan's ties with Washington and Beijing have frayed under Chen's hardline pro-independence policies since 2000.
"Ma Ying-jeou has a mandate to improve relations with China," said Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan. "He's going to use that mandate to change course from over the past eight years."
But analysts also warn that Ma's ambitious promises could fall through in the face of tough China negotiators.
Challenges at home began on Tuesday with a 250-strong protest in Taipei by 10 organizations that raised an opposition flag and urged Ma's government not to make Taiwan "a slave of China".
Ma campaigned for the presidency on a platform focused on breathing new life into Taiwan's economy and pushing Beijing for trade ties, direct transit links and a peace accord.
"He should be good for Taiwan. He can get stuff done," said Hsieh Nai-kao, 60, of Taipei, reacting to the inauguration. "But he makes pledges too fast. You don't want to be too naive."
Some Taiwan citizens are just waiting.
"It's too early to say how well Ma will do, so we'll have to see after some period, maybe three months," said National Taiwan University student Tang Bang-yun, 20.
Ma has pledged to launch direct weekend flights to China by July and initially to admit up to 3,000 Chinese tourists daily. Flights would axe time-consuming stopovers in Hong Kong or Macau for Taiwan investors in China and ease the passage for tourists.
Taiwan stocks rose 5.3 percent over the past five sessions before Tuesday, and the Taiwan dollar rallied in the days before the inauguration.
Ma has vowed to make the Chinese yuan convertible with the Taiwan dollar, let Chinese buy Taiwan real estate and push for a common market.
As long as Taiwan does not "emphasize independence", China and Taiwan can talk in depth, said Zhang Jianping of the Institute for International Economic Research under China's National Development and Reform Commission.
Ma also promised clean government and ethnic unity in Taiwan.
Chen's family, aides and vice president have been hit by graft charges. On Tuesday prosecutors asked the government to notify them if Chen leaves the island before they finish a corruption investigation against him.
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(Additional reporting Shen Yan in Taipei, Jason Subler in Beijing and Edmund Klamann in Shanghai; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Roger Crabb)
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