Taiwan's president-elect vows to defend island from China threats

TAIPEI: Taiwan's president-elect Lai Ching-te vowed Saturday to stand "on the side of democracy" and defend the self-ruled island from "intimidation" from China, which has branded him as a threat to peace in the flashpoint region.

Lai delivered an unprecedented third consecutive term for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after a raucous campaign in which he pitched himself as the defender of Taiwan's democratic way of life.

Communist China claims democratic Taiwan, separated from the mainland by a 180-kilometre (110-mile) strait, as its own and says it will not rule out using force to bring about "unification", even if conflict does not appear imminent.

Beijing has in the past slammed Lai, the current vice president, as a dangerous "separatist" and on the eve of the vote, its defence ministry vowed to "crush" any move towards Taiwanese independence.

Addressing supporters after his two opponents conceded defeat, Lai thanked the Taiwanese people for "writing a new chapter in our democracy."

"We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy," he said, adding that he will also try to pursue exchanges with China.

"I will act... in a manner that is balanced and maintain the cross-strait status quo," he said.

But he also vowed "to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threat and intimidation from China."

Leading up to Saturday's poll, authorities have repeatedly warned of interference from China, pointing to paid trips to the mainland for voters and flagging instances of disinformation that painted Lai in a negative light.

After his win, Lai said the island had "successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election."

The victory extends DPP's rule after eight years under outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, who had served the maximum two four-year terms.

But in legislative elections held alongside the presidential ballot, the DPP lost its majority in the 113-seat parliament.

According to official data from Taiwan's Central Election Commission, Lai had 40.1 percent of the vote with ballots counted from 99 percent of polling stations.

His main rival Hou Yu-ih of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) trailed in second place with 33.5 percent.

"When the people have made their decision, we face them and we listen to the voices of the people," Hou told supporters.

KMT's Hou had argued for warmer ties with China and accused the DPP of antagonising Beijing with its stance that Taiwan is "already independent."

Ko Wen-je – who took 26.5 percent of the vote with an anti-establishment offer of a "third way" out of the two-party deadlock – said the results put his Taiwan People's Party (TPP) on the map as a "key opposition force."

"Ko Wen-je will not give up on building Taiwan into a sustainable country and I would like to appeal to you not to give up as well," he told supporters.

During the campaign the KMT and TPP tried to strike a deal to join forces against the DPP, but the partnership collapsed in public acrimony over who would lead the presidential ticket.

The election was watched closely by both Beijing and Washington, Taiwan's main military partner, as the two superpowers tussle for influence in the strategically vital region.

Located on a key maritime gateway linking the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean, Taiwan is home to a powerhouse semiconductor industry producing precious microchips – the lifeblood of the global economy powering everything from smartphones and cars to missiles.

China has stepped up military pressure on Taiwan in recent years, periodically stoking worries about a potential invasion.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a recent New Year's address the "unification" of Taiwan with China was "inevitable."

After weeks of strong rhetoric over the Taiwan vote from Beijing – but little coverage in Chinese state media to the domestic audience – the 7pm state television news broadcast Xinwen Lianbo made no mention of the vote.

Chinese warplanes and naval ships probe Taiwan's defences almost daily and Beijing has also staged massive war games in recent years – simulating a blockade of the island and sending missiles into its surrounding waters.

The Chinese military said the night before the polls that it would "take all necessary measures to firmly crush 'Taiwan independence' attempts of all forms."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met a senior Chinese official in Washington hours before the vote and stressed the importance of "maintaining peace and stability" across the Taiwan Strait. - AFP

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