TAIPEI (Reuters) - China has rebuffed a request by Taiwan for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou to meet at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, saying it was "inappropriate", a Taiwan official said on Friday.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since Nationalist forces, defeated by the Communists, fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. China considers Taiwan a renegade province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring it under its control.
But over recent years the two sides have built up extensive economic ties, and this week, they held their first direct, government-to-government talks, a big step towards expanding cross-strait dialogue beyond trade.
At the talks in the mainland city of Nanjing, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi said Zhang Zhijun, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, brought up the subject of a meeting this year between their leaders.
Wang said he responded by proposing the APEC summit later in the year as "the only choice for us", but Zhang resisted the request.
"I told Zhang that Taiwan hopes Ma and Xi can meet in the upcoming APEC meeting," Wang told a news conference in Taipei after returning from his four-day visit to China.
"However, Zhang said that is not acceptable. China doesn't see APEC as appropriate," Wang said, without elaborating.
Since taking office in 2008, Ma has signed a series of landmark trade and economic agreements with China, cementing China's position as Taiwan's largest trading partner.
But booming trade has not brought progress on political reconciliation or reduced military readiness on either side. Many in democratic Taiwan fear autocratic China's designs for their free-wheeling island.
Wang, who had raised the possibility of a Xi-Ma meeting at APEC before he left for China, said Zhang referred to Ma as "Mr Ma" or "your leader", rather than as president, underscoring the mainland's reluctance to confer legitimacy on the island's government.
In October, Xi told Ma's envoy to last year's APEC summit, Vincent Siew, that a political solution to the standoff between China and Taiwan could not be postponed forever.
But Ma later said he saw no urgency to hold political talks and he wanted to focus on trade.
Chinese academics have said China may be willing to accept a meeting if it was done as a party-to-party meeting between Ma, as the head of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist party, and Xi as the head of the Chinese Communist Party.
Despite the close economic ties, U.S.-armed and backed Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint and its recovery is a priority for China's Communist Party, which is investing billions to modernize its military.
Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Robert Birsel