Give Chinese President Hu Jintao credit for one thing: With recent visits of top Taiwanese opposition politicians to China, he has come up with a better way of sending a message to Taiwan's 23 million than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Jiang wasn't shy about using China's People's Liberation Army to show his displeasure with the island's separatist-minded leaders, ordering mock invasions or lobbing missiles into the Taiwan Strait to convince Taiwanese they should toe Beijing's line on unification. But such crude tactics only strengthened separatist politicians such as President Chen Shui-bian by sparking a backlash.
Instead of missiles, Hu is offering pandas. The cuddly animals are part of a charm offensive he is waging to curb the Chen government. In May, Hu met with Lien Chan, Taiwan's former Vice-President and chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that for decades vowed to retake the mainland. Hu hopes the visit, one of several by top opposition figures, will pressure Chen to give in to Chinese demands that Taiwan stop carving out a future as an independent country.
Although the light touch is welcome, China's President must do more to win over the Taiwanese and eliminate the threat of war. Indeed, under his two-year rule, China has added scores of missiles to the hundreds it has aimed at Taiwan. And in March, Hu rammed a bill through China's legislature that calls for military action if Taiwan moves too far toward making its de facto independence into a de jure reality.
In the past decade, as Taiwan has become an invaluable part of the global IT network, its democracy has matured into one of the most vibrant in Asia. Having successfully made the transition from a poor, authoritarian state into a comfortable, democratic one, the island is a role model for other countries -- including China. The Taiwanese know their economic future is inseparably linked to China. But if Hu is serious about easing tensions, he'll need to figure out a way to talk to the island's democratically elected leaders. Until he does, the Taiwanese are likely to say, thanks, but you can keep your pandas.