TAIPEI -- Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party, who many expect to win the presidential race in January, has said she wants to forge closer relations with the U.S. and reduce economic dependence on China.
Statements made by Tsai during a 12-day trip to the U.S., Taiwan's most important strategic partner, raise the possibility next year of a shift away from the China friendly policies of Taiwan's incumbent Nationalist president, Ma Ying-jeou. This comes as tension between the two major powers, which vie for influence in Asia, has risen over an intractable territorial dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
Tsai's relationship with U.S. officials may be benefiting from the increased regional friction. Her last, unsuccessful presidential campaign three years ago did not much impress Washington. This time she had been made more welcome; before her arrival U.S. officials urged Beijing to exercise flexibility and restraint in its dealings with her.
"Taiwan is and will continue to be a reliable partner of the U.S. in ensuring peace and stability in the region," Tsai said in Washington on Wednesday in an address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
"We must work closely with our American friends, not only in deterring traditional threats and coercion, but also in jointly dealing with other non-traditional security threats, such as cyber-security," Tsai said. She blamed Taiwan's economic woes -- the growing income gap, a lukewarm job market and stagnating wages -- on Ma's promotion of economic relations with China.
"Globalization and China's rise as the world's factory have affected Taiwan's efficiency-drive model of economic growth," Tsai said. She advocated reducing "dependence on a single market" in Taiwan and called for the country's "economic autonomy".
While bilateral relations have significantly improved over the past seven years during Ma's two terms in office, the top opposition official's remarks reflect a body of public opinion in Taiwan that believes his pro-China policies have hurt ordinary livelihoods and undermined Taiwanese independence. China continues to regard self-governed, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory even though the two countries split in 1949.
Tsai's tour of the U.S. from May 29 to June 9 gives officials there a chance to get to know her better. U.S. support is meanwhile considered a prerequisite for any Taiwanese presidential candidate. Tsai has already met with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel and senior members of Congress, including senators John McCain and Jack Reed. She is expected to meet with senior officials in President Barack Obama's administration later.
Tsai has indicated she wants to invest more in domestically-developed defense programs. She conceded to her CSIS audience that while China, the U.S. and Taiwan probably had different interpretations of the status quo, there could still be a consensus for peaceful co-existence. "We should all agree that maintaining a peaceful and stable relationship across the Taiwan Strait serves the interests of everybody," she said.
Tsai expressed hope that China's President Xi Jinping will exercise more "flexibility" in dealings with Taiwan. She said he had a superior understanding of the country gained from his decade as governor of Fujian, a southeastern province with strong trade ties to the island.
If she wins election next year, Tsai may still have plenty of convincing to do. "She needs to pass the test of the 1.3 billion people in China," Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S., told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. "She cannot continue to be elusive about whether she accepts the 'one-China' principle or not."