BEIJING // After several years in which relations have improved between the two countries, the president of Taiwan has accused Beijing of pressuring the World Health Organisation to describe the self-governed island as a province of China.
In a move analysts described as being made with an eye to presidential elections in January next year, Ma Ying-jeou said the island had to defend its "national dignity" by rejecting the label.
Beijing has considered Taiwan to be part of China since nationalists fled there when Mao Zedong's communists took control of the mainland in 1949, and Chinese state media routinely refer to the island as "China's Taiwan province".
That the World Health Organisation should use similar wording, with an official memorandum advising use of the term "the Taiwan province of China", has stoked anger on the island after the document was revealed by a Taiwanese legislator on Monday.
According to reports, the WHO memorandum said in the organisation's documents "information related to the Taiwan Province of China must be listed or shown as falling under China and not separately as if they referred to a state".
Mr Ma on Tuesday said he wanted to "express our stern protest to mainland China" over allegedly pressuring WHO into using the wording, and indicated Taiwan would also press its case with the WHO.
"As the president I have to defend our national dignity, Taiwan's safety and the people's welfare," he said.
"The two sides have both made efforts to build mutual trust in the past three years and I urge China to treasure such an accomplishment and not to go back to the old ways."
In recent decades China has isolated Taiwan diplomatically, cutting the number of countries and official organisations that recognise the Taipei government.
However, since the election in 2008 of the Hong Kong-born Mr Ma, who heads Taiwan's Kuomintang nationalist party, Beijing-Taipei relations have significantly improved, with the signing of trade agreements, the commencement of direct flights between mainland China and Taiwan, and an increase in tourist visits. In January, a move by Taiwan not to deploy a rocket system on islands close to China was seen by analysts as further evidence the two sides were getting on better.
Many Taiwanese, however, fear an erosion of Taiwanese sovereignty, and this, analysts said, may partly explain Mr Ma's robust comments. In January's election he faces Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which is suspicious of closer links with Beijing.
Zhang Baohui, an associate professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who has written extensively on China-Taiwan relations, said the Taiwanese president "must at least make a strong statement to protect his own position in the next election, because many Taiwanese are at least concerned that Mr Ma is not very good at defending Taiwan's autonomy.
"He has to try hard to prove he can protect Taiwan's autonomy. His reaction has a lot to do with his domestic electorate."
Similarly, Jia Qingguo, a professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University, said Mr Ma's comments were "politically necessary. In Taiwan, if you want to maintain public support, this is the politically correct thing to say," he said.