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China tones down its edict on Taiwan a bit

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SHANGHAI, China — Chinese officials are taking a "more relaxed" approach to the touchy issue of reconciling with Taiwan but still insist that negotiations on terms of reunification not begin until Taiwan acknowledges it cannot be a separate sovereign state, U.S. officials said Friday.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, joined by senior officials from the State Department and the National Security Council, met with Wang Daohan, head of the quasi-government Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, which is in charge of the mainland's contacts with Taiwan. Wang is a former mayor of Shanghai and is said to be particularly close to President Jiang Zemin.

Cohen said he told Wang "time is of the essence," and that this is an opportune moment, since Taiwan has elected a new president. A senior member of Cohen's delegation, speaking privately, said later that Cohen made it clear that the opportunity for a breakthrough could slip away quickly.

"If the mainland waits six months on this, probably the chances of moving things forward diminish," the official said.

This and other officials in Cohen's delegation said the Chinese are less bellicose on the Taiwan issue than only a few months ago.

"It's really impressive if you see the change in tone, a change in the nature of the discussion," said one official closely involved in China affairs since before the rupture of relations with the United States last May following the U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

"The discussion is in a sense more relaxed, it's more constructive, it's more forward-looking, there's not a sense of total stubbornness and crisis," the official said.

At a news conference after his meeting, Cohen said he found no surprises in Wang's main message.

"Mr. Wang indicated that this needs to be resolved (and) there has to be a commitment to the one-China policy on the part of Taiwan," Cohen said. While not offering any specific new ideas, Cohen said the Chinese government needs to conduct "some creative examination" of options.

Cohen's spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said the defense secretary was satisfied that he had achieved his goal of encouraging officials during talks this week in both Beijing and Shanghai to move ahead now on the Taiwan dispute. Bacon said Cohen had not expected any immediate breakthroughs.

"He has encouraged all the officials with whom he talked to seize the moment," Bacon said.

The Clinton administration has been careful to avoid getting involved as a mediator in the China-Taiwan dispute.

Washington acknowledges China's claim to Taiwan, but by law must help the island maintain its defense. China insists that Taiwan accept the principle of "one China, two systems" before it enters into reunification negotiations — meaning Taiwan could keep its democratic system but not have sovereignty.

The lead story in Friday's edition of the China Daily, the government-run English language newspaper, quoted Wang as saying, "I will go to Taiwan, but at an appropriate time. It all depends on if Taiwan authorities adhere to the one-China principle."

After meeting Wang, Cohen addressed the Shanghai Stock Exchange, which he called the "epicenter of the burgeoning Chinese economy" and a future engine of growth for the economies throughout Asia.

He touted the power of free trade and predicted quick approval by the Senate of permanent normal trade relations with China, which he said was a key to completing the "circle of stability, prosperity and democracy."

The wealthier China becomes, the more its people will embrace democracy and demand change, Cohen said.

"Becoming a full partner in the world economic system will lead to inevitable change in China," he said in prepared remarks.

"As the people of China become more prosperous, and the middle class here grows, it will do what middle classes have done throughout history — seek a greater voice in governing," Cohen said. "In short, a growing, stock-owning Chinese middle class" in greater contact with the world "will do more to keep Asia peaceful, stable and — eventually — democratic than any action other nation could possible take."

Cohen's language was more direct than any of his public remarks in Beijing, where to held two days of talks with top leaders, including President Jiang Zemin and Gen. Chi Haotian, the defense minister.

In a question-and-answer session with members of his audience at the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Cohen got a dose of the passion mainlanders feel about Taiwan.

A young Chinese man practically shouted at Cohen, "There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan belongs to China." The man, who did not identify himself by name, said the United States "has no right" to tell China how it should go about resolving the matter.