KINMEN, Taiwan (AP) _ It's Taiwan's most important New Year's resolution and biggest peace gesture yet: On Jan. 1, it will end a five-decade ban on direct shipping and trade links between two outlying islands and longtime rival China.

The move illustrates Taiwan's willingness to lower its guard and calm tempers in an explosive hotspot where a conflict with China's massive military could quickly draw in the United States, Taiwan's longtime friend and most likely defender.

Relaxing the ban is a rare concrete development in Taiwan-China relations, which is usually dominated by semantic squabbles over how to describe Taiwan's political status.

Leaders from the two sides haven't met in more than 50 years, and they seem far from the bargaining table as they argue about whether Taiwan is part of a so-called ``one China.''

A few years ago, the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen and Matsu seemed like the last place the government would pick to experiment with direct shipping and trade ties with China.

After the two sides split amid civil war in 1949, Chinese canons pounded the islands just off China's southeastern coast with artillery barrages that went on for years. China still threatens war if Taiwan seeks independence

Determined to keep China from taking the rocky, wind-swept islands, Taiwan stationed tens of thousands of troops on them and constructed elaborate, near-bombproof underground dwellings. The CIA used the islands in the 1950s as bases to train Taiwan's soldiers in covert warfare.

Rows and rows of metal staves mounted in huge concrete blocks still line Kinmen's wide, sandy beaches. Hundreds of concrete bunkers camouflaged with red and green paint are positioned around the island, about the size of New York's Staten Island.

In recent years, Taiwan has withdrawn nearly half its soldiers from the islands with China no longer seeming intent on retaking them by force. A more likely target, many experts believe, would be Taiwan's main island, about 100 miles east of China across the Taiwan Strait.

As tensions eased, a bustling illegal trade in seafood, vegetables and other goods evolved on the islands. Chinese fishing boats arrive during the early morning or night and are greeted by Taiwanese customers on the beach.

Residents who harvest oysters on Kinmen's mud flats buy smuggled pears, cabbage, green onions and bags of rice from boats docked just off shore. Coast guard officers wait for the residents as they return with loaded wheelbarrows.

On Sunday, one woman yelled at the officers as they burrowed into the pile of shellfish in her wheelbarrow. After digging less than a minute, they found a small bag of pears and confiscated it, despite the woman's protests.

Eager to make progress in improving relations with China, new Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian decided last spring to study how Taiwan could open up direct trade, communication and transportation between the islands and China.

So far, Taiwan is opening the links without negotiating with China. Beijing has indicated that it will go along, but it has not warmly welcomed the move nor said how much it will cooperate.

Dennis Hickey, a Taiwan expert at Southwest Missouri State University, called China's cool reaction ``another missed opportunity.''

If China were more conciliatory with Taiwan, it could score valuable points with the Taiwanese public and make more progress toward its goal of unification, he said.

Chen's government is portraying its new policy as a possible prelude to what Beijing and Taiwanese businesses have been demanding for a long time: direct trading and transportation links between Taiwan's main island and China.

Since Taiwan began allowing businesses to trade and invest in China a decade ago, the mainland has become Taiwan's No. 2 market after the United States. But because planes and ships aren't allowed to go directly there, the trade must flow through Hong Kong, Macau or another ``third port,'' creating delays and raising costs.

In forging stronger links with China, Taiwan risks becoming too reliant on a neighbor that still threatens to attack if Taiwan seeks independence or indefinitely spurns reunification talks.

Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University expert on China, does not think Chen wants unification, which would entail handing over a significant amount of power to the communist government.

But the move could benefit Chen politically, he said. If the links prove successful, the 49-year-old Chen, Taiwan's youngest president, could diminish tensions with China, show that he can ``manage the dragon'' and consolidate his domestic support base, he said.

Establishing the trade links will also help fend off domestic and U.S pressure that Taiwan loosen its stance toward China, Nathan said.