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How Taiwan’s Presidential Candidates See China, Their Biggest External Threat

FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 5, 2019.
FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 5, 2019.

Six Taiwanese political heavyweights who are considered top contenders in the autonomous island's presidential race see it’s old rival, China, across a spectrum from military threat to friend and business partner.

China’s Communist leadership has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and threatened to take it by force if peaceful unification efforts fail. The two sides dropped negotiations in 2016 after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen declined to recognize the island as part of China.

Tsai and a rival primary election candidate backed by the Democratic Progressive Party stand for Taiwan’s current status as at least a de facto country, scholars say. Election hopefuls backed by the main opposition Nationalist Party embrace dialogue with China, on Beijing’s condition that both sides talk as if they are two parts of one China.

Here are the stated China views of Taiwanese politicians who intend to seek office or who are tipped by local media as strong candidates for the election in January 2020:

Tsai Ing-wen

The incumbent, a 62-year-old law scholar and former head of her party, advocates what she calls the “status quo” with China, meaning no unification or constitutional independence. She rejects the one-China dialogue condition as a violation of domestic public opinion.

Tsai regularly accuses China of interference in Taiwan affairs and asks that other countries help her government. "The United States, together with other like-minded countries, can help,” Tsai told an April 9 videoconference with three American think tanks. Tsai said in February she would seek a second four-year term.

Lai Ching-te

Tsai’s former premier, Lai Ching-te, says he wants the ruling party’s nomination to run for president. His views on China overlap Tsai’s, but scholars say he might edge toward formal independence, a red line for Beijing.

Taiwanese media have quoted Lai calling himself a “worker for Taiwan independence,” and a “pragmatic believer in Taiwan independence.”

That's likely to mean pushing gradually toward independence rather than making a sudden move that would alarm China, said Shane Lee, political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.

“Lai Ching-te made it very clear he’s a local volunteer for (the) pro-Taiwan independence movement,” said Liu Yih-jiun, a public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “He made it clear until the point he wanted to participate in the presidential primary. He changed a little bit, he tried to hide his real intent, but it’s still the same thing.”

The ruling party will issue its list of nominees April 24.

China opposes Tsai as well as Lai, said Wu Chung-li, a political science research fellow at Academia Sinica, a university in Taipei. “Probably I would say there is no difference between these two.”

Eric Chu

The former New Taipei City mayor advocates more dialogue under Beijing’s one-China condition. But the opposition Nationalist Party figurehead said in January the condition does not obligate Taiwan to a “one country, two systems” deal where China takes a measure of control over Taiwan.

The government of Nationalist Party ex-president Ma Ying-jeou had talked with China to reach deals on trade, transit and investment.

Chu has set up a campaign office and plans to seek the party’s nomination. The party has not set a nomination date.

Han Kuo-yu

The Nationalist Party-backed mayor of Taiwan’s major southern city, Kaohsiung, has voiced his own support for the one-China dialogue condition but opposition to “one country, two systems.”

“(For) KMT candidates, the lowest common denominator is to maintain extremely friendly peaceful dialogue with mainland China,” said Joanna Lei, CEO of the Chunghua 21st Century Think Tank in Taiwan. Candidates often shun specifics, she said. “KMT believes that in order to have the greatest amount of votes on both sides of the fence they have to remain very ambiguous in their positions.”

The charismatic mayor rated in opinion surveys as a potential top contender in the presidential race met the head of the Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office in China last month. He has made deals to sell $168.5 million in Taiwanese agricultural goods to cities in southern China, local media say.

Han has not declared candidacy for office.

Wang Jin-pyng

The former Nationalist Party president of parliament advocates economic and trade dialogue with China and maybe more. In declaring his nomination candidacy in March, he advocated an end to “confrontation,” according to a March 7 report by Taiwan’s Public Television Service. Other local media say Wang wants to sign a peace deal with China.

Taiwan and China must instead “engage in collaboration,” Wang was quoted saying.

Ko Wen-je

The Taipei mayor with no party affiliation hosted a delegation from Shanghai in December. He said in December the two sides can reach peace and stability through dialogue as “one family.”

But some analysts believe the mayor elected to a second four-year term in November privately advocates Taiwan independence.

Ko has not said whether he will run for president.