In a surprise move, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian May 2 proposed setting up “a military and security consultation mechanism as soon as possible” with China, to improve communications between military and security forces and cut the risk of misunderstandings and unintentional conflicts.

Chen’s statement followed a historic meeting April 29 between Chinese Communist Party head Hu Jintao and Taiwanese opposition leader, Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist) Party Chairman Lien Chan, and the announcement that the two parties have formally agreed to work together on five issues. Heading the list is restoration of cross-straits talks initiated in 1992 but broken off after 1998, following promotion of a “two-states” theory by Taiwan’s then-President Lee Teng-hui. The two parties also agreed to work together for the formal end of the state of hostility that has existed since the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and to take steps toward a peace accord, to deepen economic links and cooperation, to discuss Taiwan’s participation in international activities after dialogue resumes, and to develop regular exchange visits and discussions.

After the meeting, Lien told reporters his visit was aimed at increasing people’s well being. He said the KMT will work to carry out some of the agreements, but others will need action by Chen’s government.

The meeting between Hu and Lien — the first between leaders of the two parties in 60 years — took place on the invitation of Hu Jintao. It followed a visit to China last month by a delegation headed by KMT Vice Chair Chiang Pin-kung. The KMT, which governed all of China until it was forced to withdraw across the straits in 1949, governed Taiwan until it was defeated in elections in 2000. It, too, has consistently favored unification, but under its leadership. To date, no armistice or peace accord has been signed.

The government of the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party of China have consistently maintained that Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC. In December 1978, several years after China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations, the two countries issued a joint communiqué in which Washington recognized the PRC government as “the sole legal government of China” and acknowledged the PRC’s position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. However, the U.S. has continued to encourage Taiwanese separatist ambitions, selling the island advanced weapons, including its representatives in high-level weapons conferences and threatening retaliation were China to act on policies such as the recently passed Anti-Secession Law.

When the KMT was defeated in 2000 and Chen Shui-Bian became president, he pledged that his Democratic Progressive Party would not press for separation from the mainland. But he later took a more pro-independence stance.

The KMT did well in elections last December, adding to pressure on Chen’s government to improve relations with China.

Speaking with reporters May 2 during a state visit to the Marshall Islands, Chen reiterated his wish for an eventual peaceful relationship, but emphasized that China must accept Taiwan as an equal — in direct contradiction to China’s consistent policy.

Though at first Chen’s government sharply criticized the KMT for trying to take over governmental policy, in an April 25 telephone call Chen told Lien he hoped the KMT leader would return with specific ideas on improving cross-straits relations.

Despite protest demonstrations as Lien departed, opinion polls on the island showed public approval of the visits.

Lien’s trip is to be followed by a visit by James Soong, head of the People First Party, starting May 5.