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Aug 22, 8:38 AM EDT

Chinese envoy visits Taiwan amid protests

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Chinese envoy visits Taiwan amid protests

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TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) -- A Chinese envoy arrived in Taiwan on Monday for a city-to-city dialogue, amid a chill in relations following the inauguration of the island's independence-leaning president, Tsai ing-wen, in June.

The visit by Shanghai Communist Party official Sha Hailin is a rare point of direct contact between the self-governing island democracy and China following of Beijing's announcement that it was freezing exchanges between the liaison departments responsible for communication between the sides.

Sha heads the Chinese financial hub's United Front Work Department, a body generally used for outreach to minority groups, organizations and figures not under the direct control of the ruling Communist Party.

About a dozen politicians from pro-independence parties staged an airport protest over Sha's arrival, saying his rank was insufficient to merit a meeting with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. Ko was due to hold a welcoming banquet for Sha and his delegation on Monday night.

"Such forums should be attended by the mayors of both cities for various exchanges. Therefore if (Ko) meets with a United Front Work department official, it would be on an unequal footing," said Chou Ni-an, a member of the national legislature representing the Taiwan Solidarity Union.

"This is wrong. We don't need to endorse China's United Front Work," Chou said.

Also Monday, Taiwan started an annual five-day live-fire military exercise designed to test its armed forces' ability to defend against Chinese attacks. For the first time, this years' Han Kuang No. 32 exercise will include information technology specialists working to fend off simulated cyberattacks.

Tsai is scheduled to observe drills on Thursday in the southern county of Pingtung and deliver a speech.

China claims Taiwan is its own territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary. Tsai's election upended Beijing's strategy of using economic inducements to convince Taiwanese that political unification is not only inevitable but also in their best interests.

Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party holds a strong legislative majority and favors Taiwan's formal independence from China, although she has taken no steps toward that goal.

Despite that, her refusal to endorse the concept of a single Chinese nation prompted Beijing to suspend the liaison contacts days after her inauguration, in an attempt to ratchet up pressure on her.

Although China says Taiwan has been part of its territory since ancient times, the two sides have only been unified for four of the past 120 years, splitting most recently amid the Chinese civil war in 1949. Taiwan does not acknowledge Beijing's claim of authority over it, while surveys show an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese favor maintaining their current state of de-facto independence.

During Sha's visit, the sides are expected to sign cooperation agreements between city districts, film festivals and marathon races.

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