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War with China is ‘not an option,’ says Taiwan election hopeful

War with China is “not an option,” Taiwanese election hopeful and former U.S. envoy Hsiao Bi-khim said on Thursday, as she set out further details of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s campaign platform for presidential elections in January.

Hsiao, who is running mate to incumbent vice president Lai Ching-te and has twice been sanctioned by Beijing, brushed aside concerns that the pair would be stymied in any peace negotiations by the Chinese Communist Party’s mistrust of them as “independence” agitators.

“War is not an option,” said Hsiao, who joins the 2024 presidential race as opinion polls show that less than 10% of Taiwanese trust China, while 82.7% of respondents believe that the threat from Beijing has intensified in recent years.

“We remain open to dialogue [and] we are also committed to the status quo,” Hsiao told reporters, in a reference to China’s territorial claims on Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party nor formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China, and whose 23 million people have no wish to give up their democratic way of life to submit to rule by Beijing.

She called on the international community to make it clear to Beijing “that dialogue is the only way to resolve differences.”

While Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to rule out the use of force to achieve his stated goal of “unification,” he recently denied to President Biden in San Francisco that China plans to invade Taiwan by 2027 or 2035, according to U.S. officials.

“Naturally, we hope and anticipate that President Xi Jinping’s statement that there is no timetable for attacking Taiwan was sincere,” Hsiao told a news conference in Taipei. 

“We also wish to seek the greatest area of common ground with the other side, which is to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Hsiao referenced a phrase used during the early years of the Reagan administration during negotiations with the Soviet Union — “trust but verify.”

“We too are willing to grasp any opportunity for peace-making with goodwill,” Hsiao said. “But we also need to build up our own strength, to face the other side with more confidence — confidence that we can ensure continuing peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

That confidence includes educating the island’s voters to spot disinformation and attempts at political influence from China, she said.

“Ever since our first direct presidential elections in 1996, we have seen China exert its influence in every election,” Hsiao said. “I’m sure we will see a diverse range of attempts to influence the elections in the weeks ahead, including various cognitive warfare operations.”

“We must keep educating ourselves … identify disinformation, as well as various kinds of external influences,” she warned.

Authorities in China last month announced a tax audit into Foxconn, owned by presidential hopeful Terry Gou, which many see as a bid to get him to step down and relinquish voters who might otherwise vote for the opposition Kuomintang which favors closer ties with China.

Asked about the move, Hsiao said: “Businesses should not become the victims of the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions.”

“If we want to see healthy and orderly trade and economic exchanges across the Taiwan Strait, we need the other side to understand that … political pressure isn’t helpful,” she said.

Taiwanese people to determine their future

Hsiao and Lai are campaigning on a platform of “defense, deterrence, economic security, strong international partnerships and ‘pragmatic’ relations with Beijing,” she said.

She said her labeling – along with Lai – as an independence advocate by Beijing was also “not constructive.”

“The Chinese Communist Party has a habit of categorizing and labeling people, so as to struggle against them,” Hsiao said. “But over the past few decades, we have seen that this kind of labeling isn’t very constructive.”

“We continue to insist on freedom and democracy … and we will continue to defend our legitimate rights, and our values of freedom and democracy … and the ability of the Taiwanese people to determine their own future,” she said.

Hsiao, who described her role as Taiwan’s envoy to Washington as “a delicate balance” needing the careful tread of a cat, said the island’s relationship with the United States would be prioritized as part of that process.

“We have been put in a situation where the geostrategic challenges are formidable, and a rock-solid partnership with the United States is critically important right now,” she said. “We have to forge bipartisan and unified support for Taiwan.” 

Hsiao said she had traveled around the United States during her 3 1/2 year tenure as envoy, citing her experience of Taiwan’s thriving grassroots political scene as an advantage in building support beyond the confines of Washington politics.

“We cannot afford to let Taiwan become an issue of partisan difference in American politics … [and] we have to expand our support among the American public and the American people,” she said.

Hsiao’s candidacy also comes as the main opposition Kuomintang, which lost the presidency to incumbent Tsai Ing-wen for two successive terms amid ongoing fears of Chinese Communist Party infiltration, was in talks with the Taiwan People’s Party to revive plans for a joint campaign.

Opinion polls have shown that a combined opposition ticket could outweigh support for the Lai-Hsiao ticket.

“Opinion polls have been up and down throughout [multiple] democratic elections in Taiwan, ever since the lifting of martial law [in 1987],” Hsiao said in response to a question about her view of a potential “blue-white” opposition alliance.

“The best thing we can do is improve ourselves, to win more recognition from the Taiwanese people, rather than just standing by and waiting to see if they fall out or make up,” she said.

Hsiao’s first stop on the campaign trail will be in the eastern county of Hualien, which she once represented in the island’s Legislative Yuan, and where she “spent a decade of my youth,” she said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Elaine Chan and Mike Firn.