(Updates with comment from debate in fourth paragraph.)
Jan. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou faced rivals in the last debate before Jan. 14 elections that will serve as a referendum on whether to keep pursuing closer ties with China.
Ma, the Kuomintang party leader who is seeking a second four-year term, has pledged to press ahead with his policy of improved China relations that he says helped power 6.6 percent growth in the first quarter of 2011.
His opponent, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, has called for a new approach in negotiations with China. The government says a victory for Tsai would hurt relations.
“Tsai and her party shouldn’t treat Taiwan’s future as Russian roulette,” Ma said in his opening address in the final televised forum yesterday. “People shouldn’t fall victim to their ideology and don’t deserve to become their guinea pigs.”
Tsai argued that DPP isn’t “anti-China.”
“We advocate peace on cross-strait relations,” Tsai said in her speech last night. “But we insist that we can’t sacrifice sovereignty for short-term benefits. We will maintain the status quo after we win the Jan. 14 election. The new government won’t alter cross-strait agreements that were signed previously.”
If elected, Tsai probably wouldn’t build on Ma’s policies, which included signing trade agreements and lifting a six-decade ban on direct air, sea and postal links, said Erik Lueth, a Hong Kong-based economist for Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. Many of those accords would need more concrete action to have any real effect, he said.
The main trade deal between the two sides “is merely a framework for further trade liberalization, and most steps taken so far are largely symbolic,” Lueth said. “Relations, including economic relations, would cool and the market would suffer” if Tsai wins.
Ma was widening his narrow lead over Tsai in public opinion polls taken prior to a blackout period for voter surveys that began Jan. 4. Taiwanese law bars publication or release of polls 10 days prior to presidential elections.
Ma returned the Kuomintang to power four years ago, after Tsai’s predecessor as the head of the Democratic Progressive Party, Chen Shui-bian, led Taiwan for eight years. China regards Taiwan, ruled separately since a civil war ended in 1949, as its own territory and ties became strained when Chen pushed for recognition of sovereignty during his presidency.
“Everyone must choose the correct path,” Ma said at last night’s debate. “Tsai isn’t responsible; she’s too influenced by the DPP.”
Wang Yi, head of the Beijing-based Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, said on Dec. 29 that a Tsai victory would hurt the peaceful development of cross-strait ties.
Tsai advocates spending NT$400 billion ($13.2 billion) over four years on care for the elderly and social housing and ending the use of nuclear power. She promised allowances and more unemployment benefits for first-time job seekers younger than 29.
“The number of people unsatisfied with Ma Ying-jeou has gradually surpassed the number satisfied with Ma,” Tsai said in her opening speech. “Taiwan needs a change.”
Presidential candidate James Soong, chairman of the People First Party, also spoke at yesterday’s forum.
Even as she’s sought to focus on the domestic economy, Tsai’s attitude toward China has dominated her campaign, Lueth said. She stops short of calling for formal independence. Instead, she wants to create a task force to negotiate with China and rejects the so-called 1992 Consensus, which China and Ma’s Kuomintang have used as a framework for past talks.
“The key difference between the two parties is the attitude toward mainland China,” Lueth said.
--With reporting by Chinmei Sung in Taipei. Editor: Paul Tighe, Jim McDonald
To contact the reporters on this story: Janet Ong in Taipei at firstname.lastname@example.org; Tim Culpan in Taipei at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org