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Taiwan election: President Tsai Ing-wen weighs in after DPP’s William Lai faces new independence row

  • KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih asked whether Lai wanted independence after the vice-president warned against relying on the island’s constitution as a ‘sacred mountain and shield’

  • But Tsai tried to turn the tables on the opposition party, saying its approach to relations with mainland China was more risky

By Lawrence Chung

January 1, 2024

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has tried to defuse a row triggered by her party’s presidential candidate William Lai Ching-te saying that relying on its official constitution to deal with mainland China risked “disaster”.

Opponents said the comments by Lai, the current vice-president and candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, indicated he supported independence.

In a televised debate on Saturday, he asked his main rival, the Kuomintang’s candidate Hou Yu-ih: “If we make the Republic of China [the island’s official name] the sacred mountain and our shield, what exactly do you aim to do? Promote peace or bring disaster to Taiwan?”

After the debate, critics heaped scorn on Lai, saying this proved Lai supported Taiwan’s independence and did not recognise the ROC.

Lai – who told foreign media last year that he had no plan to declare independence – said on Sunday that the comments about a “sacred mountain” were referring to the ROC constitution and not the republic itself.

Speaking after delivering her final new year’s address as president on Monday, Tsai stressed that as the island’s leader, she was obliged to follow the ROC constitution in dealing with mainland China and Lai supported that approach.

“The president of the Republic of China handles cross-strait affairs in line with the ROC constitution, the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other related laws,” she said when asked to comment on Lai’s remarks.

“This is what the president must do. This is the same position the vice-president has shared with me and what I have been doing for the past eight years,” she said.

She also tried to turn the heat onto the mainland-friendly KMT and its “use of the 1992 consensus as the political basis for cross-strait negotiations and interactions”.

The consensus is an unofficial understanding reached by the KMT and Beijing that there is only one China, although the two sides may disagree about what that means.

The independence-leaning DPP has refused to accept the one-China principle on the grounds that Beijing has never publicly recognised the part of the agreement covering the different interpretations.

Tsai said the consensus and the “ROC constitution” were two different things and linking them was “worrisome.”

“I must say the ROC constitution is not a risk but linking it with the 1992 consensus is the risk,” she noted.

Tsai, who will step down at the end of her second term in May, also urged Beijing to seek “long-term peaceful coexistence” with the island and said cross-strait peace and stability is the “consensus of international society”.

Hou has said he would use the consensus as the basis for his cross-strait policy, arguing it upholds the one-China principle and could form the basis for talks with the mainland.

But Lai said in Saturday’s debate that Beijing had never recognised “the existence of the ROC”, asking Hou: “Why do you accept the 1992 consensus that only contains the one-China principle? After all, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subject to each other.”

On Sunday, Hou dismissed Lai’s argument that his comments about a “sacred mountain” referred to the ROC constitution rather than the republic itself.

“Lai Ching-te, what is the difference between the ROC or the ROC constitution? You said it will bring disaster to Taiwan,” Hou said.

“Does that mean you privately want Taiwan independence? You are the vice-president of the ROC now. It is ungracious of you to say something like this.”

Lai’s running mate Hsiao Bi-khim came to his defence in a vice-presidential debate on Monday, saying that if elected president, Lai would follow the ROC constitution and related laws in handling cross-strait relations.

“The risk today is that the KMT wants to link the 1992 consensus with the ROC constitution. We all know that the consensus does not contain the ROC constitution,” she said.

Hsiao said President Xi Jinping had already declared that there can be no alternative interpretation of the one-China principle in the 1992 consensus and that “one country, two systems” – the model for Hong Kong’s return to mainland rule – is a framework for a cross-strait union.

She also said Lai wanted to maintain the cross-strait status quo, which is the mainstream view in Taiwan.

Jaw Shaw-kong, Hou’s running mate, said the consensus allowed the two sides to “agree to disagree”.

“I feel sorry about what Tsai Ing-wen said about the 1992 consensus … We have never said we support the ‘one country, two systems’ model … We oppose it,” he said.

He also argued that it was natural that Xi, as the leader of mainland China, would refer to that as the one true China.

He said that instead of treating Xi’s comments as “gospel”, Tsai, as Taiwan’s leader, should instead have opposed such a definition.

“They say the one China is the People’s Republic of China, and we say it is the Republic of China. It’s that simple,” Jaw said.

Cynthia Wu Hsin-ying, the Taiwan People’s Party vice-presidential candidate, said during the debate that she and her running mate Ko Wen-je supported “the current status quo, cross-strait peace and a sovereign Taiwan”.

She contrasted this stance with the DPP, which she described as anti-Beijing, and the KMT, which she said was pro-Beijing.

She said the TPP believed the ROC is a “core Taiwanese value” that helped maintain cross-strait peace.

She called for the two sides to have more exchanges and cooperation to build trust, understanding and respect.

Taiwan’s presidential election will be held alongside legislative elections on January 13. Lai is currently ahead in the polls, with Hou in second and Ko behind him.



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