TAIPEI -- Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party on Wednesday officially nominated Tsai Ing-wen, its chairwoman, as its candidate for the next presidential election in January. Tsai, in an apparent attempt to address longstanding concerns that the main opposition party is prone to antagonizing Beijing, said she is committed to maintaining peaceful cross-strait ties.
China continues to claim the island, which has a population of 23 million, as its own. The two sides split amid a civil war in 1949, and Chinese officials have never abandoned the option of using force to bring about reunification.
Beijing prefers to work with Taiwan's ruling and China-friendly Nationalists. Over the past year, however, many on the island have voiced concerns that close ties with China are gradually eroding Taiwan's independence and hurting the livelihoods of ordinary people.
Speaking to reporters at the DPP headquarters in Taipei, Tsai vowed to conduct cross-strait exchanges based on a public consensus. At the same time, she expressed her desire for peace across the 160km-wide Taiwan Strait.
"As we push for domestic reform, we also need an external environment that is peaceful and stable, and among all our external relations, cross-strait issues attract the most attention," Tsai said. "Maintaining the cross-strait status quo is the DPP's fundamental principle."
Tsai is the only DPP member who sought the party's presidential nomination.
The 58-year old, who holds a doctorate in law from the London School of Economics, looked confident and relaxed throughout the nomination news conference. Toward the end, she sounded emotional as she thanked those who supported her during her failed bid for the presidency three years ago.
Tsai added that she wants to push for a bill that would allow parliament to supervise cross-strait negotiations. This way, any interactions would be conducted "on a democratic track with solid public support."
She argued that the Nationalists and Communists are trying to dominate cross-strait policy. She stressed that this needs to change and that bilateral relations should be "normalized." Tsai said that with power transfers becoming the norm in democratic Taiwan, cross-strait relations "need to follow the people's will" no matter which party is at the helm.
The DPP chairwoman was more or less paraphrasing what she told senior party officials during a closed-door meeting last week. The crux of her message: Taiwan should preserve peace and steady development in China relations while seeking mutual trust with the U.S.
The U.S. is Taiwan's sole arms provider and most important strategic partner. When Tsai ran for the 2012 election, Washington appeared to be wary of her. In September 2011, a Financial Times article quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying that the Barack Obama administration was concerned that a Tsai victory could stoke tensions with Beijing. The story significantly undermined her campaign, and she ended up losing to incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou.
At the time, though, Ma's approach to China was still widely popular with voters. Things have changed. The Nationalists suffered a resounding defeat in key mayoral elections in November, largely due to the growing unpopularity of Ma's China-friendly platform. Consequently, no Nationalist heavyweights have shown much zeal to run in the presidential poll, which will be held with lawmaker elections.
This time, Tsai appears to have a clearer path to the presidency.
Although cross-strait relations are always in the spotlight, Tsai spent most of her 12-minute speech on Wednesday talking about domestic affairs. She focused on the division between rich and poor, along with sluggish economic growth. She spent only a minute and a half on China issues.
Stagnant wages and the increasing wealth gap do weigh heavily on Taiwan voters' minds. But some observers suggest the speech was also a signal that the DPP will try not to get embroiled in rows over relations with Beijing, since that is the party's Achilles' heel.
This could make for familiar campaign strategies.
"Cross-strait ties are not Tsai's forte, so she will direct attention to domestic issues," said Lin Jih-wen, a political scientist at Taiwan's prestigious Academia Sinica. "The Nationalists will be reluctant to discuss domestic affairs but will highlight their cross-strait achievements. It was like that in the last presidential election as well."