Taiwan politician urges China envoy to respect island's choices

TAIPEI (Reuters) - A senior Taiwanese politician urged China's top official in charge of relations with the island to respect its people and their choices, underscoring the deep ideological split that divides democratic Taiwan and Communist-ruled China.

The governing Nationalist Party's Eric Chu, who is mayor of New Taipei City which incorporates suburbs of capital Taipei, made the comments to Zhang Zhijun, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, who is on his first ever visit to the island China considers its own.

"The best part of Taiwan society is our diverse democracy," Chu said, according to a government statement.

"The ideas and decisions of the Taiwanese people are to be respected," he added. "We have to seek consensus and respect differences, with mutual empathy for both sides."

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war with the Communists.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control, but relations have improved markedly since China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.

Zhang's trip comes at a sensitive time.

Protesters occupied Taiwan's parliament and mounted mass demonstrations over three weeks starting in March in anger at a trade pact, which will open various sectors in both economies.

The opposition calls the pact a threat to Taiwan's industry and fears it could open the door to Chinese influence on its politics.

Signed a year ago, it has stalled in Taiwan's parliament, which is set to discuss it at a session overlapping with Zhang's visit. Advocates, including Ma, say it is a step to normalising ties and will provide jobs and raise living standards.

Trade worth nearly $200 billion last year has nonetheless brought no progress on political reconciliation or reduced military readiness on either side. Many Taiwanese, especially in the south, fear China's designs for their island.

On Friday, Zhang is due to travel to the heavily pro-independence southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung and meet its mayor, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stalwart Chen Chu.

While China says it will never countenance a de jure independent Taiwan, it has adopted a more tolerant stance towards the DPP, and Chen herself has been to China, spearheading those engagement efforts.

(Reporting by Michael Gold; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)