Taiwan’s sovereignty belongs to its people, presidential frontrunner says

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence belong to its people, the frontrunner to be its next president said on Saturday in an often testy debate with the other two candidates dominated by arguments over China and tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s Jan. 13 presidential and parliamentary elections are happening as China has stepped up military and political pressure to assert its claims of sovereignty over the island, including regularly sending warplanes into the strait.

Vice President Lai Ching-te, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate, reiterated in a pre-election debate televised live that he was open to talks with China, which has repeatedly rebuffed his offers of dialogue as it believes he is a dangerous separatist.

“On so-called Taiwan independence, Taiwan’s basic position is that Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence belong to its 23 million people not the People’s Republic of China,” Lai said.

“The Republic of China and People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other – this is the definition of Taiwan independence,” he added, referring to Taiwan’s formal name.

The defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong’s communists, who set up the People’s Republic of China. Neither government recognises the other and no peace treaty ever ended the war.

Lai has generally been leading opinion polls by around five points, but some have put his main challenger, Hou Yu-ih of Taiwan’s largest opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT) much closer behind.

Hou accused Lai of smearing him with accusations of being pro-China. Hou said he opposed both Taiwan independence and China’s “one country, two systems” model of autonomy it has offered to Taiwan, but which no mainstream party supports.

“The current status quo is that the Taiwan Strait is on the brink of war. So, to maintain close ties with the United States while also making peace with China is the solution to the problem,” Hou said.

The KMT traditionally favours close ties with China but strongly denies being pro-Beijing. Like the DPP, the KMT says that only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.

China has described the election as a choice between war and peace.

The third presidential candidate, former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je from the small Taiwan People’s Party, said his bottom line on engaging with China was the protection of Taiwan’s current political system and way of life.

“With this bottom line, I’m willing to talk to you,” he said.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Faith Hung: Editing by Neil Fullick)