Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has cautiously welcomed a statement by China's vice premier, hinting that the two sides could discuss direct transportation links without getting into the divisive issue of sovereignty.

President Chen Shui-bian expressed a guarded but generally positive response to the remarks made Thursday by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen. During an interview with one of Taiwan's major newspapers, Mr. Qian expressed support for treating direct transportation links between China and Taiwan as "cross-strait" in nature, rather than as either a "domestic" or an "international" matter.

Taipei objects to the term "domestic," because the Taiwan government claims it is a sovereign entity and not under the control of Beijing. Beijing doesn't like the term "international," which could be read as a tacit acceptance of Taipei's position. "Cross-strait" is seen as a neutral third term that gives both sides room for maneuver.

Speaking late Friday in Taiwan, to reporters of the same newspaper, Mr. Chen replied that he would welcome Mr. Qian's remarks, if they represented the stance of the government in Beijing and not merely the vice premier's personal view.

President Chen then echoed remarks made earlier in the day by his premier, Yu Shyi-kun, that the two sides should hold talks on setting up such links with no preconditions that "belittle, downgrade or marginalize¨ the government in Taipei.

Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and has previously demanded that any cross-strait dialogue must be preceded by Taipei's acceptance that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is an integral part. The Chen administration has refused to do this. Beijing continues to threaten the use of military force if Taipei were to declare independence or drag its feet on coming to the negotiating table.

President Chen has been under enormous pressure from Taiwan's domestic and foreign business community to normalize transportation, communication and postal links with China. Taipei's ban on direct links means that shipping and travel between geographically close locations in Taiwan and China must go through third-party sites, such as Hong Kong, adding hours and additional expense to the growing cross-strait trade relationship.

The Chen administration has been anxious for an opportunity to resume dialogue with Beijing, without abandoning its principles on sovereignty and alienating much of its electoral base. The Chinese vice premier's remarks could herald the arrival of that opportunity.