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Taiwan elections

Taiwan's Tsai and Han clash over China in impromptu televised debate

Candidates for January's presidential election trade barbs over island's status

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and opponent Han Kuo-yu (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TAIPEI -- An event billed as the first televised policy presentation for Taiwan's presidential candidates turned into an impromptu debate, as incumbent Tsai Ing-wen and main rival Han Kuo-yu traded barbs over cross-strait relations and trade.

On Wednesday, the three candidates -- the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party's Tsai, the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang's Han, and People First Party Chairman James Soong, also pro-Beijing -- were supposed to discuss their platforms one-by-one, but gave little hint as to what policies they would implement after becoming president.

Instead, Tsai and Han used each of the three rounds in the 90-minute event to mount attacks on each other.

"President Tsai, you should let Taiwanese people know where you are leading us to," said Han, the mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung. He accused Tsai of having "failed supporters who are pro-independence because you don't make your stance clear."

Tsai countered that "China is the one that attempts to damage the status quo of cross-strait relations, not Taiwan."

The campaign has entered the home stretch toward the self-ruled island's Jan. 11 general election. Tsai continues to widen her lead, with an Apple Daily poll on Monday putting her at 47.2% compared with 17.8% for Han. Soong, who announced his presidential bid in early November, trails at 6.6%.

Support for Tsai and Taiwan's ruling DPP has recovered this year after a crushing defeat in local elections at the end of 2018.

The rebound has been aided by Chinese President Xi Jinping's heightened rhetoric in favor of unification with Taiwan -- an unpopular view on the island -- and the lengthy political unrest in Hong Kong, which has raised concerns about China's influence.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, left, poses with presidential candidates James Soong Chu-yu, center, and Han Kuo-yu before their first televised election husting in Taipei on Wednesday evening.   © Reuters

Taiwanese support for uniting with mainland China has dropped to 10.4%, based on National Chengchi University Election Study Center data released in mid-2019, falling from 15.9% at the end of 2018.

Moves toward independence are favored by 25.7%, up from 20.1%, the data shows. A majority of Taiwanese people, at 57.5%, want to keep the status quo.

On cross-strait relations, Han described his position as "very clear."

"You don't love the Republic of China," Han told Tsai, using Taiwan's formal name, "and you don't support the 1992 Consensus." This consensus asserts there is only "one China," but leaves open whether sovereignty rests in Taipei or Beijing.

"I support the Republic of China, and I defend the sovereignty and the constitutional system of the Republic of China, and I intend to serve and protect our 23 million people's lives and wealth," Han said.

Tsai said Han and the Kuomintang have been soft on Beijing's aggressiveness and take an ambiguous stance about Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests.

China reiterated its analogous "one country, two systems" arrangement for Taiwan at the start of 2019, yet Han still visited Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong earlier this year, Tsai said.

"If you don't understand why younger Taiwanese people have the sense of crisis of losing our country, you don't understand what people really think about," the president said.

Beijing's definition of the so-called 1992 Consensus allows only "one China" without letting each side interpret what that means, she said.

"China is infiltrating. China is expanding its influence on Taiwan," Tsai said. "We can't trade our sovereignty for economic gains. I can't trade sovereignty for diplomatic [allies]."

Taiwan has little room to be strategically ambiguous on foreign policy when tensions between the U.S. and China continue to rise, she said. Taiwan maintains positive relations with the U.S. and Japan, and enjoys support from many other countries to join international events, as the island has proved to be the most reliable partner in the western Pacific Rim.

"We stand with some countries not because of our personal preference, but because we share the same values," Tsai said.

Soong, who is part of a Taiwanese presidential ticket for the fifth time since 2000, said the island faces a severe challenge in trying to steer the wheel in any international affairs involving the U.S., China and Japan next year.

"The relations with our important allies could have changes next year, and this is the risk Taiwan faces," he said. "But what the two big political parties -- blue [KMT] and green [DPP] -- do are only tearing Taiwan apart and turn society against each other."

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