Taiwan president hails Vatican visit

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou returned Wednesday from a visit to the Vatican, where he became the island's first leader to meet the pope, and expressed "great hopes" for bilateral relations.

"I talked with the pope in English as he is indeed a very friendly and spirited religious leader... I have great hopes for our ties with the Vatican in the future," Ma said in Taipei.

He was among the world leaders who met Pope Francis in St Peter's Basilica on Tuesday after attending his inauguration mass in a visit hailed by Taiwanese media as "historic and fruitful".

Foreign minister David Lin described Ma's visit as "very successful" in promoting relations and enhancing Taiwan's international exposure.

The Holy See is one of only 23 states in the world that recognise Taipei instead of Beijing.

Despite improving cros-strait ties in recent years, China still bitterly opposes any steps that imply recognition of Taiwan by other countries, including their hosting visits by senior government leaders from the island.

In response to Ma's visit, Beijing warned Taipei against any actions that would inflame their delicate relationship. It urged the Vatican to recognise "the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of all China".

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the end of a civil war in 1949. Beijing still considers the island part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

The last time a Taiwanese leader visited the Vatican was in 2005, when then-president Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of John Paul II.

An incensed Beijing at the time refused to send a representative and protested to Italy for issuing Chen a visa.

China's communist regime broke ties with the Vatican in 1951 and six years later set up the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which does not recognise the pope as its head.