By Ben Blanchard
TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan’s election next year is a choice between democracy and autocracy, Vice President William Lai said in comments broadcast after China carried out military drills around the island in anger at his visit this month to the United States.
Lai, the front-runner in polls to be Taiwan’s next president at elections in January, made brief stopovers in the United States this month on his way to and from Paraguay, prompting fury in Beijing, which views him as a dangerous separatist given China’s territorial claims over the island.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Sunday morning that in the past 24 hours 25 Chinese air force planes had crossed the Taiwan Strait’s median line, which previously served as an unofficial barrier between the two sides.
That included Su-30 and J-11 fighter jets, according to a map the ministry published, though there was no immediate sign China was continuing its exercises on Sunday.
Taiwanese officials had said China was likely to conduct military exercises near the island, using Lai’s U.S. stopovers as a pretext to intimidate voters ahead of next year’s presidential election and make them “fear war”.
In an interview broadcast late Saturday with a Taiwanese television station, but conducted while he was in New York last weekend, Lai said it was not up to China to decide who won the election.
“It’s not who China likes today, and then they can assume the post. This goes against the spirit of Taiwan’s democracy, and represents huge damage to Taiwan’s democratic system,” he said.
There is no cause for China to “make a fuss over nothing” when it comes to foreign travel by Taiwanese leaders, Lai said.
“My position is that Taiwan is not a part of the People’s Republic of China. We are willing to link up with the international community and talk to China under the guarantee of security.”
China has for many years wanted to “annex” Taiwan and this is not something that started under the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, he said, pointing to battles along the Chinese coast in the 1950s that saw China seize Taiwan-controlled islets.
“This election is not a choice between peace and war. We can’t order off a menu, choosing peace and then there’s peace, choosing war and then there’s war. That’s not the case. What it is is that we have the right to choose whether we want democracy or autocracy. This is the real choice we have to make in this election.”
China has demanded that Taiwan’s government accept both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of “one China”, which it has refused to do.
China’s Eastern Theatre Command, on its official WeChat account, posted a short video clip late Saturday of a map of Taiwan superimposed with three slogans: “Relying on the U.S. is an evil road”, “Seeking independence is a dead end” and “Reunification is the right road”.
Taiwan’s navy on Sunday released video footage of its sailors on the guided missile frigate Tian Dan shadowing the Chinese frigate Xuzhou, which it said was taken on Saturday in the seas to Taiwan’s south.
Taiwan’s military also released pictures of one of its fighter jets taking off and a pilot checking a missile underneath an aircraft.
The U.S. urged China on Saturday to stop pressuring Taiwan.
“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan,” a State Department spokesperson told Reuters in a statement.
The U.S. would continue to monitor the exercises closely, the statement said.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by William Mallard and Kim Coghill)