TAIPEI, Taiwan — Ruling party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh on Thursday called for Taiwan to have closer economic ties with rival China, but insisted the democratic island must retain its political separateness from the mainland.
Hsieh’s comments on economic links put him at variance with President Chen Shui-bian, who has resisted sanctioning direct flights and cargo service across the Taiwan Strait.
Earlier this week Chen was formally sworn in as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party – a role that will give him considerable sway in the conduct of Hsieh’s campaign.
Speaking to students at Taipei’s National Taiwan University, Hsieh appeared to downplay Chen’s fears that direct transportation links would increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on its giant neighbor and limit its options in the event of a confrontation.
The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and China has threatened to attack if the island ever makes its de facto independence permanent.
“It is my proposal to have direct links with China,” Hsieh said. “There should be a win-win situation between Taiwan and (the mainland). We should prosper together in peace.”
Hsieh’s support for economic links can be expected to win him favor among moderate Taiwanese voters, many of who feel that Chen’s opposition to better ties with China has shortchanged the island’s development.
However, Hsieh said, concentrating exclusively in the economy, without also considering Taiwan’s sovereignty, was a grave mistake.
“Our dignity as a nation is also important,” he said. “If we only talk about the economy, we will become like Hong Kong … it will be tragic.”
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. It was promised a wide degree of autonomy, yet Beijing has ruled out full democracy for the territory before 2008.
In the March 2008 presidential elections Hsieh faces off against Ma Ying-jeou of the main opposition Nationalists.
The DPP favors Taiwanese independence, while Ma’s Nationalists support eventual unification with the mainland.
Chen’s second and final term as president ends in May.