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China Signals Softer Tone on Taiwan After Year of Upsets

FILE - China's President Xi Jinping speaks at the Dialogue on Strengthening Connectivity Partnership at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2014.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is acknowledging that new problems exist in Beijing's relations with Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China hopes to take as its own someday.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping met a Taiwanese delegation at an annual regional economic meeting, he noted new problems in relations and urged that both sides do more to improve ties for the long term.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Beijing Sunday, Chinese state media reported that Xi said that although it is “unavoidable” that the two sides would have differences, they “must respect each other’s choice of development path and social system.”

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the 1940s and wants to reunify despite opposition on the self-ruled island. Since 2008, China has signed 21 economic deals with Taiwan as an incentive to merge.

But anti-China protests in Taiwan, a long delayed trade liberalization deal and the standoff over democratic reforms in Hong Kong, have taken a toll on China-Taiwan relations.

In recent months, Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou also urged Beijing to agree to protesters demands in Hong Kong for universal suffrage for the territory’s chief executive.

Tung Chen-yuan, professor of development studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei, says Beijing is keen to avoid any further worsening of ties.

He says the development of China-Taiwan relations has slowed bit by bit. If you ask about taking a step forward, Tung adds, there’s a high level of difficulty. So he says that for mainland China, it’s fine that relations just return to stability as long as they do not get messy again and that China’s ambitions should not be too high.

China’s president did not make public any specific issues between the two sides when he met Vincent Siew, former Taiwan vice president and head of his island’s delegation to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in Beijing.

Experts expect Chinese officials to keep working toward new agreements on trade, transit and investment as they have since the normally conciliatory President Ma took office in 2008.

They believe Chinese officials will remain friendly toward Taiwan to pursue their goal of eventual unification. They would, for example, try to sound out the views of common people in Taiwan and tone down language such as “one country, two systems.” The Communist government uses that model to rule Hong Kong and Macau, both without democracy.

Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan, says China can do little more.

“The soured atmosphere, they try to improve on that. I think Beijing at most will do the same as before. But the constraints in terms of improvement of cross-Strait relations, I think Beijing could not do anymore,” said Lin.

China will nervously watch for any more hostility in Taiwan before the island’s early 2016 presidential race. Ma must step down that year due to term limits, and his seat may go to Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party. That party takes a more cautious stance than Ma on relations with China.

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