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"Don't use Taiwan", Taipei frets ahead of Trump-Xi meeting

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan’s government, worried about being used as a pawn by China and the United States, said on Monday the self-ruled island must protect its own interests as concerns in Taipei rise ahead of an expected meeting of U.S and Chinese leaders.

Peng Sheng-chu, Chief of Taiwan's National Security Bureau attends a parliamentary session at Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China has never renounced the use of force to take back what it deems a wayward province and has been pressuring Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who leads an independence-leaning ruling party, to concede Taiwan is a part of China.

The United States is Taiwan’s only major political ally and sole arms supplier, and weapons sales to Taiwan have repeatedly upset Beijing.

“We call on the United States and China, when they improve relations, to not use Taiwan in their own interest or as a chess piece,” Catherine Chang, Taiwan’s minister in charge of China affairs, the Mainland Affairs Council, told reporters.

Chang urged Beijing to communicate with Taipei “in order to maintain stability and peace in the Asia Pacific region.”

The comments come after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday in Beijing that U.S. President Donald Trump anticipates a meeting “soon.”

At issue for Taipei is whether a Trump-Xi meeting will harm Taipei’s interests as Washington begins considering a big, new arms package for Taiwan, a move sure to anger China.

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In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China’s resolute opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was clear and consistent.

“We hope the U.S. fully recognises the high sensitivity and serious harmfulness of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” she told a daily news briefing, adding that the United States should handle the Taiwan issue cautiously.

There is contact between Taiwan and the new administration on the arms sale issue, but a specific request list has not been drawn up for this year, though there are pending requests from last year, defence ministry official Wu Pao-kun told lawmakers.

“We should seek the greatest advantage in the interaction between the United States and China, to reduce the possibility of Communist China guiding and manipulating the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship,” said Peng Sheng-chu, chief of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau.

Peng, who was answering questions at a parliamentary session, did not elaborate on the steps Taiwan should take, but said the bureau’s current intelligence showed a new communique that could hurt Taiwan’s interests was unlikely to result from a Trump-Xi meeting.

“But we do not rule out the possibility,” Peng added.

In December, Taiwan had celebrated a diplomatic coup when Trump, as president-elect, took a congratulatory phone call from Tsai and raised questions about whether he would stick with the four-decade-old “one China” policy.

Trump changed tack last month, however, and agreed to honour the “one China” policy during a phone call with Xi.

Tillerson left China with warm words from Xi on the weekend, ending his first trip to Asia since taking office with an agreement to work together with China on North Korea and putting aside trickier issues.

Xi praised increasing communications in recent weeks between Beijing and Washington, and said he was “confident” of seeing bilateral relations move in the “right direction.”

Taiwan was discussed during the meeting, but details were not provided.

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast