China's Taiwan policy chief to make first-ever visit to island, in further sign of warming ties

BEIJING (AFP) - The head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office is to make his first-ever visit to the island, Taiwanese officials announced on Thursday, in a further sign of warming ties between the mainland and its former bitter rival.

Mr Zhang Zhijun, director of China's State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, will visit Taiwan in late June to meet his Taiwanese counterpart Wang Yu-chi, the island's China policy decision-making body said.

"The Mainland Affairs Council hopes the visit will help facilitate official interaction between the two sides and enable the mainland authorities to better understand how Taiwan people look at the cross-strait relationship," council spokesman Wu Mei-hung said.

Mr Zhang will not visit Taipei on the landmark four-day visit, reflecting a trip to China by Taiwan's Mr Wang in February, who avoided visiting the capital because of political sensitivities.

China still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the island has governed itself since the two split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

Relations have warmed since President Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Kuomintang party came to power in 2008 on a platform of strengthening trade and tourism links. He was re-elected in January 2012.

In June 2010, Taiwan and China signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a pact widely characterised as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation.

Yet the hard-won trade pact, along with other achievements like direct flights, was the result of negotiations by quasi-official bodies from each side as Taipei and Beijing still had no official contact.

A breakthrough in relations came in February, when Taiwan's Mr Wang visited the mainland in a landmark trip marking the first official contact between the governments in six decades.

The historic meeting in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province was the fruit of years of gradual efforts to improve political ties on the back of a burgeoning economic relationship.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping met longtime Taiwanese politician James Soong in Beijing. During the meeting, Mr Xi urged closer contact and warned the island against breaking away, Xinhua reported.

"Our sincere enthusiasm to unite Taiwan compatriots for common endeavours will not wane, and the firm will to curb 'Taiwan independence' is unshakeable," he said.

Taiwanese President Ma's move to bring warmer ties with Beijing has met with flashes of fierce opposition at home, however.

Hundreds of student protesters seized the main chamber of Taiwan's Parliament building in mid-March, staging a three-week sit-in to oppose a proposed trade pact with China.

The demonstrators said the deal would damage their economy and leave Taiwan vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing.

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