Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen says talks with Beijing could resume

Lawrence Chung

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has warned the island’s voters democracy was at risk from Beijing, but said she believed there was a chance of cross-strait reconciliation in the foreseeable future, without elaborating on how that would occur.

“As long as we can forge internal unity to jointly face the current situation across the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and to demonstrate our resolution to uphold our national sovereignty while seeking to maintain cross-strait peace and stability, I believe Beijing authorities will have to deal with Taiwan eventually,” Tsai said.

Speaking on Sunday during a televised debate between the three presidential candidates in January’s election, Tsai stopped short of saying how she would forge internal unity, given the sharp political divide between her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the mainland-friendly camps which have troubled the island for decades.

Cross-strait relations dominated the debate as Tsai exchanged fire with populist Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, from the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) and James Soong Chu-yu, chairman of the smaller People First Party (PFP).

She accused Han, seen as Beijing’s most favoured candidate, of failing to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty when it came to the question of whether he accepted the “one country, two systems” model being applied in Hong Kong and Macau. “Perhaps you say you reject it now, but it is all because you are under intense pressure to say so,” Tsai said.

In response, Han said he also thought there was no need for Taiwan to listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal on “one country, two systems,” adding Tsai had been using that anti-mainland tactic to try to canvass voters’ support and smear him for kowtowing to Beijing.

Soong said it was necessary for the two sides to create some form of constructive dialogue so they could better understand each other and avoid confrontation in the future.

Official cross-strait exchanges have been suspended since 2016 when Tsai took office and refused to accept the one-China principle. Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province to be returned to mainland control, by force if necessary, has continued to apply pressure on the Tsai administration – through war games, the poaching of seven diplomatic allies and blocks on visits to Taiwan by mainland tourists.

Xi proposed in January 2019 that unification talks should begin based on the principle of one country, two systems which applies in Hong Kong and Macau.

Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidates, from left, Han Kuo-yu from the KMT, the People First Party’s James Soong, and Tsai Ing-wen, from the DPP, ahead of the debate. Photo: AP

Tsai read excerpts from a letter she had received from a young person in Hong Kong who said Taiwan people were seeing “the end” of the city, which has been racked by anti-government protests for more than six months.

“‘I ask that Taiwan’s people not believe the Chinese Communists, don’t believe any pro-Communist official, and don’t fall into China’s money trap,” she read.

Tsai said she had remained non-provocative and had done all she could to continue normal exchanges between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, only to be snubbed by Beijing.

“But what is more important at the moment is for us to uphold and safeguard our sovereignty, especially after Xi Jinping proposed earlier this year one country, two systems” as a formula for cross-strait unification talks. To Taiwanese people, safeguarding our sovereignty and preventing Taiwan from being annexed is very important and also the first priority,” she said.

Battle for hearts and minds of young voters may prove crucial in Taiwan

The debate, just two weeks ahead of the presidential election on January 11, followed three televised presentations by the candidates since December 18. Other issues covered during the debate included the island’s energy problem, corruption, labour policy and political issues.

Analysts said, while the televised events would allow voters to understand what the candidates could do if elected, none of the candidates was able to offer any concrete solutions to the cross-strait stalemate.

“On the cross-strait issue, the comments by the three candidates were quite superficial, just like when President Tsai repeatedly said she would safeguard sovereignty, she, however, stopped short of mentioning how she was able to maintain cross-strait exchanges while seeking to explore Taiwan’s diplomatic space,” said Chao Chun-shan, honorary professor of mainland studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Wang Chih-sheng, secretary general of the Cross-Strait Policy Association, a private research agency in Taipei, said the debate had lacked substance, with all three candidates evasive on certain issues.

He also said “the effect of Tsai’s anti-China card to trigger voters’ resentment toward Beijing and raise their fears over a possible taking of Taiwan by China has become weakened over time as Tsai has played the card too often this year”.

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