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Politics

China gives unwitting boost to Tsai's bid for Taiwan presidency

Incumbent's approval rating picks up as war of words with Beijing escalates

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is expected this week to rebut her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping's remarks on reunification.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Tensions between Taiwan and mainland China are breathing life into Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's bid for re-election. Poll numbers have given the island's ruling Democratic Progressive Party reason to hope after a drubbing in last year's regional elections.

Tsai's approval rating surged 11.2 percentage points to 34.5%, according to a Jan. 21 poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation. That came after she pushed back against Chinese President Xi Jinping, who emphasized China's goal of reunification with Taiwan under the "one country, two systems" formula in a Jan. 2 speech.

Later the same day Tsai said that Taiwan would absolutely not accept that model.

Tsai has taken a tougher line toward Beijing than her rivals in the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, Taiwan's main opposition party. That approach is popular with younger voters, many of whom favor independence. It also means relations between the two governments are not likely to see much improvement if she wins next year's contest.

The DPP suffered a crushing defeat in local elections last November, as voters swung back to the Kuomintang four years after handing the DPP its own landslide win. The ruling party also lost the mayoral election in the key southern city of Kaohsiung.

Tsai resigned as party chair to take responsibility for the loss, leading to speculation that she might sit out the 2020 race. But she said she felt "confident" in her chance of victory in a Feb. 19 interview with CNN.

Cross-strait relations were not a key factor in her party's setback, she said, adding that changes in the pension system and equal rights for the island's LGBT community have become divisive issues.

She is now trying to connect with voters, allowing reporters to freely ask her questions at the president's office. She is also posting more on social media, often in a lighthearted way that has attracted attention. Judging from her approval rating, the effort is paying off.

Tsai also benefited from comments made by Nationalist Party Chairman Wu Den-yih, who is a rival candidate for the candidate 2020 presidential vote. Wu said on Jan. 14 that he would like to begin talks on a peace agreement with mainland China if he is elected president.

Wu's comments came little more than a week after Xi's speech, in which the Chinese president stressed that Beijing would never give up the option of using force to reunify China and Taiwan. Tsai slammed the remarks, saying Taiwan could not sign a treaty on an equal footing with China while Beijing is threatening it with force.

In keeping with her previous promise to maintain the political status quo, Tsai has been cautious in her handling of cross-strait relations. That has disappointed her party's supporters and younger voters, who mostly favor independence.

Despite her bounce in the polls, Tsai's road to re-election will be bumpy. But her firm stance toward the mainland may help her win back support from pro-independence voters.

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