China drops word 'peaceful' in latest push for Taiwan 'reunification'

BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang left out the word “peaceful” on Friday in referring to Beijing’s desire to “reunify” with Chinese-claimed Taiwan, an apparent policy shift that comes as ties with Taipei continue on a downward spiral.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is seen on a screen as he delivers a speech at the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Taiwan has complained of increased Chinese military harassment since the coronavirus pandemic began, with fighter jets and naval vessels regularly approaching the island on drills China has described as routine.

China says Taiwan is its most sensitive and important territorial issue, and has never renounced the use of force to bring what it views as a Chinese province under its control, making the Taiwan Strait a potential military flashpoint.

Li, in his state-of-the-nation work report at the start of the annual meeting of China’s parliament, said his country would “resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence”.

China will improve policies and measures to encourage exchanges and cooperation across the Taiwan Strait, and protect the well-being of Taiwan’s people, he added.

“We will encourage them to join us in opposing Taiwan independence and promoting China’s reunification,” Li said. “With these efforts, we can surely create a beautiful future for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

However, there was no mention of the word “peaceful” in front of “reunification”, departing from the standard expression Chinese leaders have used for at least four decades when addressing parliament and mentioning Taiwan.

Democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being ruled by autocratic China.

A senior Taiwan official, however, told Reuters the absence of the word “peaceful” did not signal a fundamental change in China’s approach towards the island.

“They are still talking about the concept of peaceful unification, just in an indirect linguistic expression,” said the person who is familiar with Taiwan’s policy towards China, pointing to Li’s remarks on cross-Strait exchanges and economic integration.

“It’s neutral. We do not look at it that way.”

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

China believes Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is a separatist bent on independence. Tsai says Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China, its formal name.

Speaking in Taipei on Wednesday at the inauguration of her second term, Tsai said Taiwan could not accept becoming part of China under its “one country, two systems” offer of autonomy, and rejected China’s sovereignty claims.

China wants Taiwan to accept the “one country, two systems” model, which is supposed to guarantee a high degree of autonomy and which Beijing uses to run the former British colony of Hong Kong.

However, all major Taiwanese parties have rejected it.

Responding to Li’s speech, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said the Taiwanese people were resolutely opposed to the “one country, two systems” proposal as it “belittles Taiwan and damages the status quo in the Taiwan Strait”.

On Friday, China proposed new legislation for Hong Kong requiring it to quickly enact national security regulations, a move some see as contradicting the “one country, two systems” concept, and swiftly condemned by Taiwan.

(This story has been refiled to add dropped word “not” in paragraph 14).

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Yimou Lee; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez