Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said Tuesday he is open to a political dialogue with China once remaining economic issues are resolved, though he gave no timetable for when those discussions might start.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ma credited his outreach to China, which has so far centered on trade and commercial ties, with easing tensions in one of East Asia's longest-running feuds.
The 60-year-old leader, who took office in 2008, said the warmer relations between Taipei and Beijing have also benefited the United States, long the island's most important military benefactor.
Although China has been more assertive as its wealth grows, Ma said he believes it will find ways to work with other countries in Asia and will not jeopardize the region's economic growth. Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, and the mainland continues to insist that the island of 23 million people is part of its territory.
Though Ma struck generally positive tones about China's future, he made it clear that he did not intend to push democratic Taiwan into a political agreement that would hasten Beijing's long-stated goal of unification.
Any political union, he said, would require Beijing to adopt democracy and respect for human rights, now under special scrutiny following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed China democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo. Because of such concerns, Ma did not cite any timetable for the process, saying it would be a "long historical" transition.
China's "splendid" economic development "has not brought some democratic reforms," Ma said. "And what happened to Liu Xiaobo also demonstrates that they have a long way to go. Taiwan is a democracy. We elect our president, we elect our parliament and we run our own business."
In between the poles of union and separation, Ma said his government is prepared to discuss political agreements, including security issues, as soon as the priority economic issues are dealt with. He suggested that those political talks could start as early as a second four-year term if he wins re-election in 2012.
"We are not intentionally delaying the talks on political issues. Certainly the economic ones are more important to people here. People also support the idea (of) economy first, politics later," said Ma. Asked if he would move to political talks in a second term once economic issues are dealt with, Ma said "it depends on how fast we move." Political issues, he said, "will come after all the major economic issues are resolved."
Among the crucial economic agreements that first need to be tackled, Ma said, are those on investment guarantees, ways to resolve disputes and tariff and other barriers to the two sides more than US$100 billion in trade.
The remarks underscore how Ma's policy toward China is evolving as Taipei and Beijing _ antagonists from the Chinese civil war _ look to build on their growing economic ties. Taiwan politics are bitterly partisan, particularly on relations with China. For much of his 2 1/2 years as president, the Harvard-educated Ma has generally focused on selling the economic benefits of better ties and playing down the prospects for broader political agreements.
Ma, the son of a midlevel official in Taiwan's long dominant Nationalist Party, received a law degree from Harvard in 1981, and after returning to Taiwan, served as private secretary to President Chiang Ching-kuo, and later as justice minister in the government of Lee Teng-hui.
Slender and ramrod straight, the soft-spoken Ma is a courtly, somewhat remote figure. He enjoyed high levels of popularity during his first year in office, but suffered a decline amid widespread perceptions that his government botched its response to a devastating typhoon last summer.
Criticized by opponents at home for moving too far too fast, Ma promised anew to the AP that his China opening would move only in step with the public, which polls show is overwhelmingly in favor of a continuation of democratic Taiwan's de facto independence. He ticked off the signposts of the warming ties _ 372 direct flights a week between the mainland and Taiwan, compared with only sporadic flights before he took office; 2.6 million mainland visitors as of September, up from a trickle.
Having concluded an initial economic agreement with China, Taiwan is now discussing trade arrangements with the U.S., Japan, Singapore and Indonesia, Ma said.
Ultimately, he said that the economic ties would pay off in enhanced security for Taiwan with a China that has built a robust military and still has more than 1,000 short- and medium-range missiles pointed at the island.
"The most important strategy is to make the leadership in Beijing not even to consider invading Taiwan because that would hurt their interests too," said Ma.
He called the presence of the missiles "an illogical situation" given the thousands of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan on any given day.
Even so, Taipei will upgrade its defense and in doing so continue to rely on Washington for assistance, Ma said. He reiterated that his request to the U.S. for relatively advanced F-16 C/D fighter jets to replace older fighters still stands, even though Beijing has warned against the transfer.
"We are not seeking war with any country," he said. "This is very much understood in Washington. Of course China continues to oppose that. So we have made it very clear that to maintain the adequate defense of Taiwan is the intention."
In the mid-1990s, Taiwan and China nearly came to blows, and defusing the tensions between the two helps make Washington's relations with Beijing less complicated, Ma said.
While the U.S., Japan and Southeast Asian nations have recently criticized China for more aggressively asserting claims to disputed territories and straining tensions, Ma said none would undermine the prosperity that the region's security rests on.
"Asia is the growth engine of the world," Ma said. "Neither country would do something stupid to change that prosperous future."
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.