BEIJING China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping pledged peaceful ties on Monday during a meeting with a Taiwan delegation, suggesting that the mainland's policy towards the self-ruled island will not shift dramatically when he becomes China's president.
Peaceful development of cross-Strait ties is the duty of the Chinese Communist Party's new leaders, Xi told Lien Chan, honorary chairman of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, whose four-day trip to China is seen as offering an early look at how Xi will handle relations between the political rivals.
"Safeguarding the interests of our Taiwan compatriots and expanding their well-being is the mainland's oft-repeated pledge and solemn promise of the new leaders of China's Communist Party central committee," Xi said, according to China's Xinhua news agency.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war in 1949. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
For years the strait between the communist mainland and the democratic island, a key U.S. ally in the region, was seen as one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.
But relations have warmed significantly since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008. The two sides have agreed to a series of trade and tourism deals and China is now Taiwan's top export market. Bilateral trade is worth about $121 billion last year.
Tension between China and its neighbours, including Japan Vietnam and the Philippines, over over-lapping offshore claims has become more of a worry for the region than China-Taiwan differences.
But despite better economic ties between the mainland and the island, there has been little progress toward political reconciliation or an easing of military distrust.
"Of course, we also are soberly aware that historical problems remain in cross-Strait relations, and that there will be issues in the future that will require time, patience and joint effort to resolve," Xi said.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are an irritant in relations between China and the United States.
Xi's meeting with Lien, a former Taiwan vice president, was his first with a senior political figure from the island since assuming the Communist Party's top job in November. Xi will become China's president next month.
In a separate statement released by Taiwan's Nationalist Party, Lien said the 18 cross-Strait agreements signed in the past four years were a break from turmoil in relations, but he added that "core issues" were unresolved.
Xi, as governor of the southeastern province of Fujian in the 1990s, helped attract Taiwan investment to the region which is directly across the strait and shares a similar dialect.
Lien, heading a delegation of dozens of Taiwanese political and business leaders, is set to meet outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing and Clare Jim in Taipei; Editing by Jonathan Standing and Robert Birsel)