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Voting underway in Taiwan's closely-watched elections as China ramps up pressure

China has called the elections a choice between 'war and peace' and even threatened further aggression if Taiwan moves towards independence. China considers the self-governed island as part of its mainland and has vowed to reunify both countries by force if necessary.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Taipei Published on: January 13, 2024 10:19 IST
Taiwan, presidential elections, China
Image Source : REUTERS Voting underway in Taiwan's presidential elections

Taipei: The people in Taiwan have begun casting their votes on Saturday to choose their next president and legislature in closely-watched elections that will decide the country's future with its arch-nemesis China. The voting began at 8 am (local time) on Saturday and will wrap up eight hours later, with a winner likely to be declared this evening.

Candidates concluded their campaigns Friday night with stirring speeches, but younger voters were mostly focused on their economic futures in a challenging environment. All three candidates, Lai Ching-te from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih from the China-favouring Kuomintang and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) - cast their votes.

"I encourage everyone around the country to vote with enthusiasm and show the vitality of Taiwan's democracy,” said Lai, who is seen as the frontrunner of the ongoing elections as he seeks to succeed outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen and give the independence-leaning party a third term. Lai cast his vote in his hometown of Tainan. Hou and Ko cast their votes from New Taipei City and Taipei respectively.

Hou, a former head of Taiwan's police force, has previously shared China's views of Lai being a 'dangerous separatist' and said Lai's view on relations with Beijing could push the two sides to war. “I advocate pragmatic exchanges with China, the defence of national security, and the protection of human rights. I insist that Taiwan's future will be decided by the 23.5 million (people of Taiwan), and I will use my life to protect Taiwan,” he said.

The ruling DPP champions Taiwan's separate identity and rejects China's territorial claims, while KMT favours reunification with China but wants to do it on its own terms. Ko from the TPP is seeking to strike a balance in relations with China, saying that engagement with Beijing cannot come at the expense of protecting Taiwan's democracy and way of life.

What is at stake?

The presidential race is immensely tight and both China and Taiwan's key ally, the US, are weighing in on political and economic issues they hope will sway voters. China has called the elections a choice between 'war and peace'. The US has strongly backed Taiwan against China's military threats and has urged Beijing to refrain from interfering in the electoral process. Taiwan's government believes that China is likely to attempt to put pressure on its incoming president and tensions between the two countries are likely to increase.

It is worth mentioning Taiwan split with China in 1949 after a civil war. However, China still calls the island nation its own. Even it provoked Taipei to war following then-US Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island nation in August last year. In fact, the ruling Communist Party says the island is obliged to rejoin the mainland, by force if necessary.

China remains the one subject that can be ignored but not avoided, as Beijing has stepped up its military incursions on the Taiwan Strait with the purported aim of putting pressure on the island country. China has continued flying fighter planes and sailing warships near the island to put teeth behind its pledge to blockade, intimidate, or invade. Apart from China, voters are focusing on issues like the sluggish economy and expensive housing.

Taiwan's defence ministry on Friday said it detected five Chinese balloons over the Taiwan Strait within the past 24 hours, one of which crossed the island, the latest in a spate of such balloons the ministry says it has spotted over the past month.

Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to prevent anyone from trying to 'split' Taiwan from the Chinese mainland "in any way", asserting that the reunification of the Chinese "motherland" is an irreversible trend. Additionally, the Chinese government has threatened to place more trade sanctions on Taiwan if the ruling DPP "stubbornly" adheres to supporting independence.

Apart from China, domestic issues have dominated the campaign like sluggish economy and expensive housing. The Taiwanese economy grew just 1.4% last year, partly reflecting inevitable cycles in demand for computer chips and other exports from its trade-dependent manufacturing base and the slowdown of the Chinese economy. Long-term challenges such as unaffordable housing and wage stagnation topped voters' concerns.

Blinken meets Chinese and Japanese diplomats

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait during a meeting with a senior Chinese diplomat on Friday, as the Biden administration seeks to mitigate tensions over Taiwan.

Blinken met Liu Jianchao, the Chinese Communist Party's international minister, and Yoko Kamikawa, the foreign minister of Japan. The Biden administration is seeking to keep down tensions in the Taiwan Strait if the governing Democratic Progressive Party, known to lean toward independence, should prevail in Saturday's election. 

The US is not supporting any candidate in Taiwan's presidential election and plans to send an unofficial delegation to the island shortly after the election, a move that can damage efforts to repair ties between Beijing and Washington, which have plunged in recent years over several issues.

Liu's meeting with Blinken was part of a US trip that took the veteran Chinese diplomat to New York. Earlier this week, he said Beijing is serious about US statements not to support Taiwan's independence. “And we hope that the US side will honour this commitment," Liu told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Liu, when speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, said Beijing does not wish to have a war. “China remains firm in pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace and is committed to peaceful development... China does not seek to change the current international order, still less reinvent the wheel by creating a new international order," Liu said.

(with inputs from agencies)

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