(Bloomberg) -- Leading Taiwan presidential candidate Eric Chu pledged to improve ties with China, casting his potential rematch against incumbent Tsai Ing-wen as a chance to reset ties with the mainland.
Chu, who lost to Tsai in the 2016 election, accused the president of stoking tension with China at the expense of economic growth. The former New Taipei city mayor said he would work to deepen communication with the Communist Party in Beijing without compromising the island’s commitment to democracy.
“We will achieve economic prosperity for the whole Chinese nation through cooperation between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait,” Chu said in an interview in Taipei.
Chu was the first member of the opposition Kuomintang to announce a run for the presidency after Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party suffered a resounding defeat in local elections in November. While Chu lost by 25 percentage points three years ago, opinion polls show him now leading by double-digit margins in a potential head-to-head race next year.
However, surveys indicate both Chu and Tsai trail Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je and his Kaohsiung City counterpart Han Kuo-yu in terms of popularity, although neither has yet declared a run for the presidency.
Tsai’s popularity has slumped amid public dissatisfaction over a host of local issues ranging from stagnant wages to her left-leaning party’s effort to legalize same-sex marriage. But those concerns have been overshadowed by Beijing’s effort to isolate Tsai over her refusal to accept its bottom line that both sides belong to “one China.”
China has long been a central dividing line between Taiwan’s two biggest parties, with the DPP supporting legal independence and the KMT favoring closer economic ties with Beijing while maintaining self-rule. Former President Ma Ying-jeou, a KMT member, held an unprecedented meeting with China’s Xi Jinping in 2015, just two months before Tsai’s election.
Chu blamed Tsai for the decline in ties, specifically taking issue with her comments to CNN last week that China would have “to brace for impact on its own economy and other fronts” in the event of an attempted invasion.
“The leader of a country should protect all citizens from the danger of being trapped in a war,” Chu said. “And she should not try to gain political advantage by dragging the public into a war and causing harm.”
The presidential office responded to Chu’s criticism Tuesday.
“When it comes to China and Taiwan, it’s already widely known which one contributes to international stability and which one poses a threat to freedom and democracy,” said Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang. “We are surprised former mayor Chu appears not to know this.”
Chu has taken a more aggressive tact against Tsai than in the last campaign, when the KMT put him on the ballot just weeks before election day to replace an unpopular candidate. Still, he may have to overcome potential candidates from his own party before he gets a rematch against Tsai in the general election, which could come as soon as January.
Former parliamentary speaker Wang Jin-pyng, Kuomintang Chairman Wu Den-yih, who both support closer China ties, are widely expected to run for president. Former Premier Simon Chang, who served under Ma, has also declared his candidacy as an independent.
Chu, who holds a doctorate in accounting from New York University, said he favored welcoming mainland investment and talent into Taiwanese industries that aren’t deemed strategically important. The two sides have been ruled separately since the KMT moved the Republic of China government to Taipei during a civil war with the communists 70 years ago.
Xi has signaled a desire to resolve the issue during his tenure, proposing last month “in-depth democratic consultations” to work toward unification. While Xi stopped short of issuing a firm deadline, his remarks went further than his 2013 statement saying the political impasse “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
Chu sidestepped a question on whether he preferred eventual unification with China, describing it as a discussion for future leaders.
“What the two sides across the Taiwan Strait need the most is peace,” Chu said. “I feel right now at this stage instead of talking about the long-term goal for the next generation, it is better for us to create a more peaceful and more cooperative environment.”
(Adds more details on polls in fifth paragraph, presidential office comments in 11th paragraph.)
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