TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said on Thursday the island was not ready to discuss unification with China, sending a firm message to an increasingly assertive Beijing eager to absorb what it considers as a renegade province.
Ma, 65, told Reuters in an exclusive interview that, though the economic and social gaps between the proudly democratic island and its giant Communist neighbor were narrowing, their political differences remained wide.
"The political situation between the two sides is still very different," said Ma, speaking on the day Chinawas celebrating its National Day. "I think to discuss matters, such as unification, is not very suitable. Taiwan is not ready."
Although his eight-year presidency has been characterized by warming business ties with China, Ma, who steps down next year due to term limits, repeated how "the time was not yet ripe" for unification talks between the once bitter enemies.
His comments underscore how far Taiwan has moved from embracing China following massive protests on the island last year against a cross-strait trade pact and the weakening of Ma's pro-China Nationalist party.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communists.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the island of 23 million people back under its control, particularly if it were to make moves towards formal independence.
Ma acknowledged China's economy and society have changed dramatically in the past 30 years.
"The economy and society are freer than in the past," he said. "Its stock markets are vibrant. This was rarely seen before."
China is Taiwan's largest trading partner and many Taiwanese tech companies run plants on the mainland.
Under Ma, Taiwan has signed a series of trade and economic pacts with Beijing, though there have been no political talks and suspicions persist on both sides.
In what was widely seen as a backlash against creeping dependence on China, Ma's Nationalists were trounced in local elections last year and look on course for defeat in the 2016 presidential vote to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The DPP says it believes only Taiwan's people can decide its future, a stance Beijing interprets as favoring independence.
Taiwan is probably China's most sensitive political issue, and its eventual "recovery" remains at the top of the agenda for the Communist Party.
China's President Xi Jinping said at a regional summit in 2013 that a political solution to a stand-off over sovereignty lasting more than six decades could not be postponed forever.
Chinese special forces held mock battles at the Zhurihe training base in Inner Mongolia using a full-scale model of Taiwan's presidential office and nearby government buildings and roads, according to a report by the Taiwanese defense ministry last month that was seen by Reuters.
The Taiwanese report added that of China's 1.24 million-strong ground forces, 400,000 could be used in combat against the island.