TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The front-runner in Taiwan's presidential race said Sunday that she would seek stable relations with mainland China, but did not rule out revisiting the island's official stance on independence, leaving open questions about how China would respond to her probable victory in next month's elections.
Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition leader who has firmly held onto a sizeable lead in polls, used her platform during the first debate to warn against the political rapprochement and deepening economic ties with the mainland brought by the ruling Nationalist Party, or KMT, since the 2008 elections.
"We cannot simply be bound to China," Tsai said. "That's what worries us most about the past eight years — the sense that that's the only choice we have. That's not good for our economy or our security."
Against the backdrop of a sputtering economy and rising anti-mainland sentiment, the Jan. 16 elections have been framed by both the KMT and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party as a referendum on President Ma Ying-jeou's China policy.
Ma backed — with varying degrees of success — several trade pacts with the mainland during his two terms and held a historic summit in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was the first such meeting since the Chinese Communist Party defeated the KMT in China's civil war and established the People's Republic of China in 1949.
The upcoming election is being closely watched by Washington and Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has threatened to take the island by force if it declares independence. Xi has delivered hard-line messages to Taiwanese leaders in private meetings, while China's military conducted exercises near Taiwan earlier this year in a show of force.
On Sunday, Tsai and her main opponent, KMT chairman Eric Chu, offered contrasting visions of how to revitalize Taiwan, which is becoming increasingly crowded out by the world's No. 2 economy on the world stage. Still, both distanced themselves from the deeply unpopular Ma.
Chu, the mayor of New Taipei City adjacent to the island's capital, apologized for the incumbent party's performance, but attacked Tsai as a destabilizing force whose victory would only undercut an economy that unexpectedly shrank in the third quarter. He described forging ties with China as a matter of economic reality.
"When I talk to our fruit farmers, our fishermen, our small businesses, they say the No. 1 thing they fear is Tsai Ing-wen," Chu said, while repeatedly criticizing Tsai's stance on the independence issue as vague.
"A basic requirement is good, stable cross-strait relations," he said. "It's not just about security."
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