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China relations in focus before Taiwan elections

21/03/2008 - 16:19

By Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's stormy relations with China andviolence in Tibet are dominating the final hours before theisland's presidential election on Saturday, as each side seeksto show it is best qualified to resist Beijing.

Ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh,who has trailed in media polls, has pushed a message that tovote for the more China-friendly Nationalist Party (KMT)candidate Ma Ying-jeou could make Taiwan "a second Tibet".

China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as its territory sincethe end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and pledged to bringthe island under its rule, by force if necessary. China sentits troops into Tibet, rocked by anti-China rioting, in 1950.

Not to be left out, Ma criticised remarks by ChinesePremier Wen Jiabao, who offered peace talks this week, callingWen's comments "arrogant, absurd and self-righteous".

Ma suggested Beijing Olympic boycott if violence in Tibetcontinued, though he has disputed Hsieh's message that Taiwancould become another Tibet.

"I think they both try to present the image they are toughon China," said Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studiesat Tamkang University in Taiwan. "My hunch is that both sideswill be very tough on China."

Each has graced candlelit vigils alongside robed monks andlocal Tibetans for those believed killed by soldiers or policein Tibetan areas of China since protests began on March 10.

But Ma's party advocates eventual unification with China,while Hsieh's seeks independence.

Hsieh's cartoon TV commercials have lampooned Ma's proposalfor a common market with China, showing Chinese workers andpoisoned food pouring into Taiwan.

FINAL CAMPAIGNING

The candidates held their final rallies alongside tens ofthousands of supporters carrying flags and blowing horns.

"If Ma wins today, what will the international media saythe day after? The Taiwan people have abandoned the referendumon U.N. entry and they have voted for a president who ispro-China and advocates one China and a common market," Hsiehtold supporters in Taipei.

"This is not in Taiwan's interest. This is in China'sinterest."

Russia on Wednesday threw its weight behind ally China,describing Taiwan's plan to hold a referendum on whether toseek U.N. membership as a "political escapade".

The initiative, which asks whether Taiwan should seek U.N.membership as "Taiwan" instead of its formal name, the Republicof China, has also sparked statements of protest from China,Japan, France and the United States. It is a fruitless bid, asChina has a veto on the U.N. Security Council.

Two U.S. aircraft carriers have been sent to the Taiwanregion for training exercises during the election.

China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, tryingto intimidate voters during an election. The United States isTaiwan's biggest ally.

Ma, known for his professional image and strong economicplatform, still leads Hsieh in opinion surveys by 5 to 10percentage points, analysts say.

"It'll be close, but I don't think Hsieh has done enough towin," said Bruce Jacobs, a professor of Asian studies at MonashUniversity in Australia. "I don't think Tibet can changevotes."

Neither candidate has dropped pledges for regular directflights to China, for a boost in tourism and for an easing ofChina investment rules, plans that are seen as ways to shore upa domestic economy beset by inflation and wage stagnation.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Lee Chyen Yee)


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