Taiwan presidential candidate Lai says he is willing to reopen talks with China

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Taiwan’s leading presidential candidate William Lai said on Tuesday he hopes for a reopening of dialogue with China following almost eight years of Beijing’s near-complete refusal to communicate with leaders of the self-governing island it considers its territory. But Lai told reporters he would continue the current administration’s policy of maintaining democratic Taiwan’s de-facto independence in the face of Chinese Communist Party threats to annex it by political, military or economic means.

China demands that Taiwan’s leadership concede its claim of ownership over the island before reopening contacts. “While aspiring for peace, we harbour no illusions,” Lai said at a news conference ahead of Saturday’s polls for the presidency and legislature. “We will build up Taiwan’s defense deterrence, strengthen Taiwan’s capabilities in economic security, enhance partnerships with democracies around the world and maintain stable and principled leadership on cross (Taiwan) Strait relations.”

“Our door will always be open to engagement with Beijing under the principles of equality and dignity. We are ready and willing to engage to show more for the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Peace is priceless and war has no winners,” Lai said. Lai, currently Taiwan’s vice president, is broadly seen as the front-runner in the election to succeed President Tsai Ing-wen, who is barred by law from running for a third term.

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Most polls show him well ahead of the main opposition Nationalist Party, or KMT, candidate Hou You-yi, who favors eventual unification with China under its own terms, and the alternative Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je, who has also pressed for renewed dialogue with China and the avoidance of confrontation with Beijing. Voters will also choose a new legislature, where the DPP will seek to hold on to its majority, largely based on its handling of the economy, public welfare and employment opportunities for young people.

Skyrocketing housing prices, a declining birth rate and a yawning gap between the super wealthy and working class are also playing into voter sentiments. Looming over the election has been China’s steadily increasing pressure on Taiwan through barring it from major international gatherings, wooing away its diplomatic allies to just a handful, and offering financial inducements to politicians – from the grassroots to top opposition figures who could influence the vote or promote policies increasing Chinese access to the the island’s economy.

The People’s Liberation Army sends ships and warplanes on daily missions around Taiwan and the island’s Defence Ministry has reported a growing number of balloons crossing over from China. The balloon incidents recall the incursion last year of a Chinese balloon that flew over Canada and the US and was eventually shot down by the US Air Force. China claimed the aircraft was a weather balloon that had been blown off-course, but the US said it was carrying sophisticated intelligence-gathering technology.

Over the past 24 hours, the ministry reported four Chinese balloons had passed over the island, while 10 warplanes and four warships had entered airspace and waters near the island, part of a campaign to wear down morale and military resilience. The Defence Ministry said it had monitored China’s movements, scrambling jets, dispatching ships and activating coastal missile systems.

Taiwan has been boosting its defences with new weapons purchases from the US and has expanded national service for men to one year from four months. Those have become contentious issues in the coming election, with Lai and the DPP accusing the KMT of blocking new defense spending, possibly as part of an arrangement with Beijing to gradually hand over control of the island, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949 and has never been controlled by the People’s Republic of China.