Ko Wen-je promises high-level security talks with US, Japan

With Taiwan's presidential election seven months away, the ruling and the largest opposition parties continue to squabble over how to deal with Beijing. But Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party has a different idea.

"Our slogan for the election is 'Keep Taiwan's self-reliance and peace on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.' It means people in Taiwan make decisions on their political arrangements and lifestyle," Ko said in an exclusive interview with NHK in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Ko Wen-je spoke with NHK during his visit to Japan where he has discussed the Taiwan Strait situation with Japanese lawmakers.

Ko said his party will seek dialogue with China while also protecting Taiwan's self-rule.

"First of all, we require adequate defense capabilities and secondly a dialogue. There is no need for talks if relations are good. But dialogue is necessary when relations are bad," the former Taipei mayor continued.

Ko, a prominent doctor and former Taipei mayor, plans to run for president as the leader of the Taiwan People's Party, which he formed four years ago.

He said if he wins the presidency, he will work to promote more high-level talks between the US, Japan and Taiwan on security issues.

"A framework of dialogue involving the US, Japan, and Taiwan is very important," he said. "There needs to be much closer ties between Taiwan and Japan in particular. If Taipei and Tokyo share a common ground, it will be easier to have a common sense with Washington."

Taiwan's ruling and opposition party candidates differ over how to deal with China

Taiwan's incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, who was first elected in 2016, is ineligible for a third term.

Vice President Lai Ching-te is the presidential candidate for the DPP, which is seen as pro-independence by Beijing.

He says the 2024 election will be a choice between "democracy and autocracy."

DPP Vice President Lai Ching-te is running for president of Taiwan.

The opposition Kuomintang candidate is Hou Yu-ih, who is the mayor of New Taipei City, home to the largest number of voters in Taiwan.

The KMT maintains a conciliatory stance with Beijing, and argues that if the DPP remains in power the risk of an armed clash between China and Taiwan will increase.

Hou has said he will use dialogue and contacts to find ways to maintain stability in the region.

Hou Yu-ih is the Kuomintang's candidate in the presidential election.

Three presidential candidates neck and neck

Recent opinion polls show the DPP's Lai and the Kuomintang's Hou with approval ratings of around 25 to 30 percent, placing them in first and second place.

But some surveys have put third-party challenger Ko in second place. The polls also suggest he has much appeal among younger voters in their 20s and 30s.

Ko gaining ground on big two

The following commentary is by NHK World's former Taipei correspondent Makita Naoki. He has covered three recent presidential elections in Taiwan.

Ko Wen-je could be a headache for the two big hitters. Ko has stressed that the DPP and Kuomintang only focus on their ideological positions on China, but are virtually identical on other issues. He says he will create a new political culture in Taiwan.

And recent polls show that Ko is not to be sniffed at. Lai Ching-te of the DPP and Hou Yu-ih of the KMT have been leading in the polls. But Ko is only a few points behind. In some surveys, he has even overtaken Hou.

Ko has the highest support among young voters, who are tired of the two main parties. The DPP and KMT constantly bicker over the same issue: A looming war, or reunification with China. And some are also unhappy about plans to extend the period of military conscription.

In that respect, Ko is like a breath of fresh air. He says he will tackle issues people can relate to in their everyday lives such as soaring inflation and housing costs, and high unemployment.

Of course China is still the big talking point. The candidates must figure out how to handle the risks posed by Beijing. Ties have soured since President Tsai Ing-wen took power in 2016. China's leaders see her as pro-independence, and refuse to talk.

On the other hand, Ko made frequent visits to the mainland as mayor of Taipei. And so he will likely present himself as someone Beijing can trust.

He has also said that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to "one big family." That's in line with the KMT. In fact, Ko has said he will seek dialogue and promote economic ties with China.

But as a precondition, Beijing requires any and all Taiwanese leaders to accept the "One-China" principle, which means that Taiwan is a part of China. So, things are far from clear.

Right now, Taiwan has little choice but to rely on the US for security amid Beijing's growing military pressure. Washington sees closer ties with Taipei as a crucial strategy to maintain influence in the region.

So, all eyes are on the presidential candidates and how they plan to position Taiwan between two opposing superpowers.