Taiwan president calls for breakthrough in China relations

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan and China need to drop historical baggage to seek a breakthrough in relations, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in her first public comments since China’s ruling Communist Party unveiled a new leadership line-up.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen appoints Tainan city mayor William Lai (R) as a prime minister during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher

Relations nose-dived after Tsai, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, took office last year, with China suspecting that she wants to push for the island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing.

Beijing has suspended a regular dialogue mechanism with Taipei established under Taiwan’s previous, China-friendly government, and there has been a dramatic fall in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan under Tsai’s administration.

“Right now is a turning point for change. I once again call on leaders of both sides to ... seek a breakthrough in cross-straits relations and to benefit the long-term welfare of people on both sides and to forever eliminate hostilities and conflict,” Tsai told a forum.

While acknowledging the changes in China’s leadership announced on Wednesday, Tsai did not comment specifically on the composition of Xi’s core team.

But she reiterated that while the island’s goodwill towards China would not change, Taipei would not submit to pressure.

Responding to Tsai’s speech, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the political basis for relations across the Taiwan Strait was the “one China” principle, which states that the mainland and Taiwan are part of one China.

As long as that is recognized, there are no obstacles to any talks between the sides, the office said in a statement carried by state media.

China has been stepping up the pressure on Taiwan.

This year, China’s air force has carried out several rounds of drills near Taiwan, prompting the island’s air force to scramble fighters.

Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said Taiwan was a part of China and the military exercises would continue as normal, adding that China was sincere in seeking “peaceful reunification”.

“At the same time, we have the ability, confidence and means to protect the country’s unity, sovereignty, security and territorial integrity,” he told a monthly news conference in Beijing later in the day.

Chinese President Xi Jinping drew strong applause at last week’s start of the Communist Party Congress when he said any attempt to separate Taiwan from China would be thwarted.

Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council delivered a swift response, saying it was “absolutely” the right of Taiwan’s 23 million people to decide their future.

China regards self-ruled and democratic Taiwan as a wayward province, to be brought under Beijing’s rule by force if necessary.

Reporting By Jess Macy Yu; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore