TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s presidential candidates expressed desire for peaceful relations with Beijing, which has described Jan. 13 elections on the self-ruled island as a choice between war and peace and stepped up harassment of the territory that China claims as its own.
William Lai, the front-runner and currently Taiwan’s vice president from the ruling Democratic People’s Party, said in a televised debate Saturday that he was open to communicating with the government in Beijing, which has refused to talk to him or President Tsai Ing-wen.
Beijing favors the candidate from the more China-friendly Nationalist, or Kuomintang Party, and has accused Lai and Tsai of being “separatists” who are trying to provoke a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Taiwan split from China amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing continues to regard the island of 23 million with its high-tech economy as Chinese territory and has been steadily increasing its threat to achieve that goal by military force if necessary.
Tensions with China have featured strongly in the presidential campaign. China has also stepped up military pressure on the island by sending military jets and ships near it almost daily. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry this month also reported Chinese balloons, which could be used for spying, flying in its vicinity.
Differences over Taiwan are a major flashpoint in U.S.-China relations. U.S. relations with the island are governed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which makes it American policy to ensure Taiwan has the resources to defend itself and to prevent any unilateral change of status by Beijing.
Lai -– who tops most opinion polls -– promised to help strengthen Taiwan’s defense and economy if elected.
“As long as there is equality and dignity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s door will always be open,” he said during the debate. Hou Yu-ih, the Kuomintang candidate, also said he sought peaceful relations with Beijing.
The Kuomintang previously endorsed unification with China but has shifted its stance in recent years as Taiwan’s electorate is increasingly identifying as Taiwanese -– as opposed to Chinese -– and wants to maintain the status quo in relations with Beijing.
Hou said he opposed Taiwan’s independence but also a potential unification under China’s “one country, two systems” framework, which Beijing has used to govern Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in 1997. Hou said he sought “democracy and freedom” for Taiwan.
The third candidate, Ko Wen-je, from the smaller Taiwan People’s Party, referenced a quote by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding U.S.-China relations, saying that “Taiwan and China will cooperate if they can cooperate, compete if there’s a need to compete, and confront each other if they must confront each other.”
“The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are of the same race and have the same history, language, religion and culture, but at this stage, we have a different political system and way of life,” Ko said, adding that “Taiwan needs self-reliance, and both sides of the Taiwan Strait need peace.”
“We have to make it clear to the Chinese government that my bottom line is that Taiwan must maintain its current democratic and free political system and way of life,” Ko said.
“Only if these conditions are met can we have dialogue.”