TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen wished “friends” in China a happy Lunar New Year on Thursday, drawing a surprisingly warm reaction from Chinese state media which is more used to disparaging her as a dangerous separatist.
Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potentially dangerous military flashpoint. China considers the self-ruled island its sacred territory and a wayward province and it has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Chinese control.
China has become increasingly hostile to Taiwan since Tsai, from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, won election in 2016, believing she wants to push for the island’s formal independence, a red line for China.
In a video message to mark Chinese New Year, which falls on Friday, Tsai said the festival was an important one for people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as they share many of the same traditions.
“Through people-to-people exchanges and media broadcasts, this has narrowed the psychological gap between both sides,” Tsai said.
“I want to use this opportunity to send new year’s greetings to friends on the other side (of the Taiwan Strait) and ethnic Chinese in other parts of the world.”
China’s state-run Global Times, known for its stridently nationalistic stance and which often calls the island’s president “provincial governor Tsai”, said it would normally criticize her, but in this case would reciprocate the goodwill.
“If Tsai Ing-wen really wants to use the Spring Festival to show goodwill, of course we welcome it,” it said on its website, using another name for the holiday.
Underscoring China’s continued suspicion though, the Global Times also posted a screenshot of disparaging comments – one extremely vulgar – made by people on Facebook responding to Tsai’s greeting. Facebook is blocked in China.
Tsai, in her message, also expressed condolences to the families of nine Chinese tourists killed in an earthquake in Taiwan last week.
“As I have said, on humanitarian relief there is no distance between the two sides of the strait.”
However, the run-up to the new year was marked by more bickering between Beijing and Taipei.
This week, Taiwan accused China of insensitivity by announcing that Papua New Guinea had downgraded its relations with the island while Taiwan was still dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake.[nL4N1Q24C2]
Taiwan and China have also traded accusations about China opening a new route for civil aircraft over the Taiwan Strait, which Taiwan says could affect flight safety.[nL4N1PQ2LV]
(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel)