Chinese President Xi Jinping told Taiwanese businessmen on Tuesday that relations between Beijing and Taipei had a bright future despite the recent uncertainty and the island’s increased level of engagement with the United States, but warned them to forget any ideas they might have of independence.
The meeting, on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, was the first time Xi had spoken to a Taiwanese delegation – this one led by former vice-president of Taiwan Vincent Siew – since he emerged as China’s most powerful leader for decades at last month’s National People’s Congress.
“Friends in the island’s business community should take a stand and firmly maintain the ‘1992 consensus’, oppose Taiwan independence, and firmly promote peace and the stability of cross-strait relations,” Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
Ties between Beijing and Taipei have been frosty since President Tsai Ing-wen – the leader of the independence-leaning Diplomatic Progressive Party – came to power in 2016 after defeating the Kuomintang, in which Siew is a senior figure.
“The issue of Taiwan is of great concern for the Chinese nation,” Xi said.
“We hope that compatriots across the [Taiwan] strait can together shoulder the virtuous cause of the nation and push for the peaceful reunification of the motherland.”
Despite many twists and turns, “the future for cross-strait relations is definitely bright”, Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted him as saying.
Siew echoed Xi’s comments at a press conference after the talks.
“I totally agree with President Xi’s assessment of the future of cross-strait relations, even though we are undergoing some temporary rough patches,” the 79-year-old said.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council was less enthusiastic, and called on mainland authorities to respect public opinion on the island, and drop their frequent use of coercion and intimidation.
At the National People’s Congress, the mainland’s annual parliamentary session, Xi said advocates for separatism, including those in Taiwan, would face the “punishment of history”.
Tensions between Beijing and Taipei heightened recently when US President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages high-level bilateral exchanges between US government officials and their Taiwanese counterparts.
Li Fei, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University in southeast China, said Xi’s comments were designed to send a signal that cross-strait relations could weather their current difficulties.
The talks between Xi and Siew showed that “if you are willing to cooperate with the mainland, the mainland will share the profits with you”, he said.
He also described Washington and Taipei as using each other as cards to play against Beijing, adding that it was a dangerous tactic that the mainland might not tolerate.
“Taiwan wants to use the US to confront [mainland] China and take advantage of recent China-US antagonism and the much-hyped trade tensions,” he said.
Alexander Huang, a former official with the Mainland Affairs Council, said any integration of markets across the Taiwan Strait would be welcomed by Taiwan’s business community, but not necessarily by the Tsai administration.
“I think the business community will welcome the further improvement and integration of the so-called cross-strait common market, but the government will raise the alarm and probably remind people that there are potential risks,” he said.
Additional reporting by Reuters