TAIPEI -- Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday rejected China's 'one country, two systems' model, calling for the need for the self-ruled island to stand up to Beijing's growing regional hegemony.
"We are witnessing China's rise and expansion, as they challenge free, democratic values and the global order through a combination of authoritarianism, nationalism, and economic might," Tsai said in a speech to mark Taiwan's national day. "As the strategic forefront of the Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan has become the first line of defense for democratic values."
Tsai also said that the months of unrest in Hong Kong showed the failure of Beijing's "one country, two systems' arrangement with the territory.
"The US-China trade dispute continues. And not far from Taiwan, Hong Kong is on the verge of chaos due to the failure of 'one country, two systems'," Tsai said.
"China is still threatening to impose its 'one country, two systems' model for Taiwan. Their diplomatic offensives and military coercion pose a serious challenge to regional stability and peace," she said. "The overwhelming consensus among Taiwan's 23 million people is our rejection of 'one country, two systems,' regardless of party affiliation or political position."
The speech came less than 100 days before a January general election, in which Tsai will seek a second term and her China-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party will aim to keep its majority in the Legislative Yuan.
Momentum has been building for Tsai on the back of the months of unrest in Hong Kong. A slogan of "Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow" is trending online, showing public opposition to China's planned "one country, two systems" arrangement for eventual unification with Taiwan.
Tsai's approval rating of 41.1% far exceeds that of her challenger, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the China-friendly Kuomintang opposition, according to the latest poll by the Apple Daily newspaper. Han's popularity has fallen further behind Tsai for 10 straight weeks.
Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan, said Tsai's linking of the unrest in Hong Kong with Taiwan was part of a campaign strategy to give the impression she is the right person to protect Taiwan from Chinese oppression.
"She clearly made a point that her administration is choosing the U.S.'s side in the trade war and is willing to be part of the country's regional strategy," Pan told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Ross Darrell Feingold, a Taipei-based lawyer and political risk consultant who has over 20 years' experience advising clients on transactions in Taiwan, told Nikkei the upcoming elections is Tsai's to lose.
"The speech is informative in that it reiterates the key talking points that President Tsai and DPP legislative candidates will repeat in the remaining three months of the presidential and legislative election campaigns," he said.
Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since Tsai took office in May 2016 as China seeks to isolate the island. Taiwan has lost seven diplomatic allies over the past three years, including Kiribati and Solomon islands in September ahead of China's National Day on Oct. 1. A record low of 15 countries now recognize the government in Taipei.
Beijing also suspended the issuance of permits for individual Chinese travelers in August, a move that escalated tensions by hurting the Taiwan's economy.
In her first two years in office, Tsai was more cautious on China, saying her administration welcomed open dialogue with Beijing. But following U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's blistering broadside against China in October last year, the Taiwanese leader has also ramped up the rhetoric. As trade tensions built up between the U.S. and China, she said Beijing was a source of conflict.
Both Tsai and Chinese President Xi Jinping used speeches at the start of the year to mark their very different positions. Xi used a major address to drive home his desire to unite the mainland with Taiwan, saying any moves toward independence on the self-ruled island would lead to "disaster." In response, Tsai said the island would not accept a "one country, two systems" arrangement.
Tsai stressed on Thursday that Taiwan would work with its international partners to keep the peace around the Taiwan Strait.
"China is encroaching on us through their sharp power, but as a crucial member of the region, we know that Taiwan must fulfill its responsibilities to the international community," Tsai said. "We will not act provocatively or rashly; rather, we will work with like-minded countries to ensure that the peaceful and stable cross-strait status quo is not unilaterally altered."
Meanwhile, relations between Taiwan and the U.S. continue to improve. This year alone, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has approved two major arms sales to Taiwan. This week, Republican Senator Ted Cruz attended the National Day ceremony -- making him the first American senator to attend in 35 years, according to Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On Tuesday evening, Cruz gave strong support for Taiwan and the protesters in Hong Kong, who he said were "risking their lives because they seek freedom."
"Taiwan's very existence, the creation of Taiwan, is standing up to communist oppression," Cruz said. "The Chinese communist government is terrified that people will see, how come the people in Taiwan enjoy freedom and democracy, and we don't."
"It's important for America and the rest of the world to stand alongside Taiwan," he added.