Taiwan's China-sceptic ruling party opts for moderate new leader

Amber WANG
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Xi Jinping's speech on Taiwan earlier in the week has rattled many on the island

Xi Jinping's speech on Taiwan earlier in the week has rattled many on the island (AFP Photo/Sam YEH)

Taiwan's ruling party elected a new chairman on Sunday, choosing a moderate to replace the post vacated by President Tsai Ing-wen after a recent electoral mauling, in a vote closely watched by China and the United States.

Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a 2016 landslide poll, sweeping away a government that had built much closer ties to China over the previous decade.

The result rattled Beijing because Tsai refuses to acknowledge that the self-ruled island is part of "one China".

Beijing cut communication with her administration, stepped up military drills, poached several of Taiwan's dwindling diplomatic allies and started economically pressuring the island.

But in November, Tsai's DPP suffered a string of defeats in local elections, fuelled by a backlash over her domestic reforms and deteriorating economic ties with China, Taiwan's largest market.

Tsai resigned the party chairmanship but stayed on as president, staying above the fray in the vote to replace her.

On Sunday evening the DPP announced it had chosen Cho Jung-tai, a moderate consensus candidate backed by major party figures.

He comfortably defeated a bid from an openly pro-independence rival who had called for Tsai not to stand again in next year's presidential election.

J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based expert with the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said the vote bolstered Tsai's chances of standing for a second term.

"Party members voted for continuity," he told AFP, adding that other countries "will also be reassured."

"It certainly makes it much more likely that she will be on the ticket for re-election."

- Squeezed moderate -

China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified, despite the two sides being ruled separately since they split in 1949 after a civil war.

While Beijing has reacted frostily to Tsai, she is from a much more moderate wing within her party that favours talks.

Tsai is squeezed between China and more radical members of her own party who favour pushing for independence -- something Taiwan has never formally declared.

Cho's victory saw off a challenge from You Ying-lung, a polling expert deeply critical of Tsai.

He supported a recent call by four party heavyweights for Tsai not to seek re-election in 2020.

The win means Tsai is less likely to clash with her party's new leader. But the DPP remains divided and Tsai has yet to declare whether she will stand again.

A party schism in the run-up to 2020 could favour the Kuomintang, the pro-Beijing party that was turfed out two years ago.

It doubled its seats in November's elections, even defeating the DPP in its traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung.

A DPP swing towards its more radical wing might also worry Washington.

The US remains Taiwan's most powerful military ally but maintains that Taipei must not move closer to a formal declaration of independence for fear of stoking a Chinese invasion.

On Wednesday, China's increasingly assertive president Xi Jinping described Taiwan's unification with the mainland as "inevitable", adding that force could be an option if independence was declared.