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TAIPEI/BEIJING (Reuters) - Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou will attend next week's inauguration of the pope, the government said on Friday, drawing only a muted response from China despite Beijing's call for the Vatican to sever ties with the self-ruled island.
The Vatican is Taiwan's sole European diplomatic ally. China claims the island as a wayward province, though the two sides have been governed separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war.
"The Holy See is our diplomatic ally, and the president ... is leading a delegation to attend the inauguration of the new pope," Taiwan Vice Foreign Minister Vanessa Shih told reporters in Taipei.
"The two countries share many universal values, such as freedom, democracy, freedom of religion (and) justice ... We have common beliefs and values, and therefore we have had a close friendship."
China reacted angrily in 2005 when former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian, someone hated by Beijing for his pro-independence views, attended Pope John Paul II's funeral, and refused to send a delegation of its own.
But since the China-friendly Ma took office in 2008, Beijing and Taipei have signed a series of landmark trade and business deals, agreeing to set aside tricky political issues for now.
Both sides are currently observing an unofficial diplomatic truce. In keeping with this, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked about Ma's visit to Rome, gave only a low-key answer.
"We hope Taiwan will keep in mind the overall interests of cross-straits relations, and work with China to maintain the sound condition of (ties)," she told a daily news briefing.
"China's view on relations with the Vatican remains unchanged: We hope the Vatican will take concrete steps to improve relations and remove barriers to the improvement of ties."
China says a precondition for establishing relations with the Vatican are for it to drop recognition of Taiwan, though it has also offered its congratulations to the new pope.
China's 8-12 million Catholics are divided between the Communist Party-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, that has installed bishops without Vatican approval, and an underground church, whose members meet in private, wary of state control.
Pope Francis will be officially installed as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church on March 19. A papal inaugural mass is customarily attended by heads of state and governments.
Reporting by Christine Lu in TAIPEI and Terril Yue Jones in BEIJING; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie