By Jean Yoon and J.R. Wu
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 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 neighbour were narrowing, their political differences remained wide.
"The political situation between the two sides is still very different," said Ma, speaking on the day China was 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 characterised 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.
"FREER THAN IN PAST"
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 favouring 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 defence 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.
SUBMARINE PLANS ON COURSE
Taiwan has budgeted T$3 billion ($91 million) for four years starting next year to kickstart the design contract phase for what will be a decades-long programme to build its own fleet of submarines.
Taiwan has four ageing submarines, including two that date from World War Two, although its military is otherwise considered generally modern.
Ma said he was "very confident" about the homegrown submarine plan and that it remained on track.
"Now we want to build our own submarines for our defence requirements. We will actively nurture some talent and hope to accelerate the pace in the future," he said.
Crucial to Taiwan's indigenous submarine programme is the transfer from the United States or other Western countries of submarine-manufacturing technology, a move that would be opposed by China.
Ma said that Taiwan has never ruled out the possibility of accepting help from other countries who have the technology.
U.S. weapons sales in recent years to Taiwan have attracted strong condemnation from China, but have not caused lasting damage to Beijing's relations with either Washington or Taipei.
Under the Taiwan Relations Act, enacted in 1979 when Washington severed formal ties with the island in favour of recognising the People's Republic of China in Beijing, the United States is obligated to help Taiwan defend itself. ($1 = 32.8430 Taiwan dollars)
(Additional reporting by Jeanny Kao; Editing by Alex Richardson)