By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING, March 3 (Reuters) - A senior Chinese official pledged on Saturday to reach out to the youth of Taiwan to get them to identify more closely with China, as Beijing frets about pro-independence sentiment on the self-ruled democratic island it claims as its own.
The comments by Jia Qinglin, the Communist Party's fourth-ranked leader, underscore China's continuing fears about the future of the island which Beijing has vowed to bring under its control, with the use of force, if necessary.
China will pursue "cultural exchanges, with the goal of ... getting the people of Taiwan, especially young people, to identify more closely with the Chinese nation and culture", Jia told the opening of the annual full session of a largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament which he heads.
China has been using cultural exchanges in the areas of art, opera and religion among others to achieve this goal, Jia said.
In doing so, China has "enhanced the sense of identification of people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits with Chinese culture and the Chinese nation", he added.
China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war with the Communists in 1949. Tensions have eased over the last three decades with trade, investment and tourism booming.
Yet since democratic reforms began in Taiwan in the 1980s, the island's once suppressed native culture and languages have flourished, especially during the 2000-2008 presidency of Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
The DPP sought to de-emphasise Taiwan's cultural and historical links with China by promoting the teaching of Taiwan history rather than Chinese history in schools and supporting the public use of dialects rather than the official language Mandarin.
Such moves riled Beijing, which viewed them as part of the DPP's efforts to promote Taiwan's formal independence. China maintains Taiwan is merely a renegade Chinese province with no right to nationhood.
However, surveys in Taiwan increasingly show people identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
While the pro-China Ma Ying-jeou won the presidency in 2008 and again this year, China still looks with suspicion at Taiwan's vibrant democracy and pride in its distinct identity.
But Jia said China was committed to developing peaceful relations with Taiwan.
"We will firmly grasp the theme of peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait ... and constantly strengthen the political, economic and cultural foundation and public support for the peaceful development of cross-Strait ties." (Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)