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Taiwan's Tsai gains momentum for reelection on US trip

Trade war and Hong Kong unrest give president boost for January poll

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen arrives at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York during her visit to the U.S on July 11.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Buoyed by tacit U.S. backing and China's stance on the Hong Kong unrest, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen arrived home from a trip to the Americas on Monday to a poll that made her the favorite to retain the presidency in January's election.

On her 12-day trip, Tsai spent four nights in the U.S. -- the longest ever "transit" for a Taiwanese president. She met with congressmen, senators, the governor of Colorado, and -- for the first time -- was permitted by U.S. authorities to hold a press briefing.

"For the 2020 presidential election, I think the voters will focus on whether our democratic ways of life with freedom could continue," Tsai said in Denver over the weekend. "The election will be a choice of values, political systems and people's ways of life."

In a straight race against her main rival, Han Kuo-yu, Tsai would gain 45% support compared with the Beijing-friendly Kaohsiung mayor's 40%, according to a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll released on Monday.

"Tsai's clearly the current front-runner given Beijing's overbearing policies and Hong Kong's extradition bill fiasco," said Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs. "But six months could be several lifetimes in politics. Anything can happen between now and January 2020. This race is far from over."

Tsai knows this firsthand, having reversed the race's momentum during the past half year.

At the end of 2018, her popularity fell to its lowest level, according to a TPOF survey in which 24% of the respondents said they were happy with her administration. But by the end of June, she had an approval rate of 47.7%.

This has much to do with the trade and tech spat between Beijing and Washington.

HP, Dell, Google, Nintendo and other companies are seeking to diversify production out of China to avoid possible tariffs. Taiwan is one potential destination.

As of Friday, the Tsai administration this year had lured some 452 billion New Taiwan dollars ($14.55 billion) worth of investment, which has the potential to create 42,100 jobs, according to Invest Taiwan, an agency affiliated with the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Such results are helping Tsai win over Taiwan's business community, which has long favored the China-friendly Kuomintang.

Han Kuo-yu is the opposition Kuomintang 's rising star,  having triggered a series of local election wins for the Beijing-friendly party late last year.   © Reuters

Tsai's tough stance against Beijing also has also boosted her popularity in the wake of ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

"Tsai has been playing the U.S. card and the Hong Kong card very well to boost her reelection bid," Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan, told Nikkei. "Tsai and her DPP have the upper hand when tackling the issues of Taiwan's sovereignty and safety, compared with economic issues."

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman demanded the U.S. drop its approval for Tsai's exchanges with U.S. officials, Pan said Beijing's criticism of Tsai's trip stateside was more muted than normal.

"A stronger objection from China against Tsai could have benefited her election bid," Pan said. "Right now China's bigger headache is to stop Hong Kong's anti-China sentiment from continuing to spread in Taiwan."

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have soured significantly since Tsai took office in May 2016. China has poached five of Taiwan's diplomatic allies as part of an ongoing aggressive campaign to isolate the self-ruled democratic island.

But even as China tones down its rhetoric, King of Notre Dame warns that the Trump administration could dial back support for Taiwan in exchange for a trade deal [with Beijing]. But this was unlikely, he said, because the current U.S. government has so far done more for Taipei than any other U.S. administration since 1979 when the Jimmy Carter administration cut ties with the island.

But all bets remain off for the upcoming election.

Foxconn's billionaire founder Terry Gou, who lost to Han in the KMT primary, has not ruled out an independent run. And Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who has long been viewed as an independent rival to Tsai, has attacked both candidates.

"It's still the most unpredictable and uncertain presidential election since Taiwan first directly voted for our leader in 1996," said Tsai Tung-Chieh, dean and distinguished professor at the College of Law and Politics at National Chung Hsing University. "The election is approaching but we do not yet know how many [candidates] are running to be the next Taiwanese President."

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