- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

As China continues to build up artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, defying concerns by the Obama administration that it could result in conflict, the leader of Taiwan’s main pro-independence party was keeping a low profile on her Washington visit Wednesday.

Tsai Ing-wen, the likely presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the January 2016 vote, is on a 12-day tour of six cities in the U.S., hoping to assure Americans that she will not destabilize cross-strait relations if she wins. The reassurance effort was evident in her circumspect presentation at a gathering for reporters and analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I have to answer this question very carefully,” she said at one point when asked about her thoughts of Chinese President Xi Jinping, garnering laughter and applause from attendees.

U.S. officials have been far more open about their concerns with Beijing’s increasingly forward posture in the South China Sea, one of the world’s critical sea lanes and one claimed at least in part by China, Taiwan and other regional powers.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently addressed the accelerated construction of artificial islands in contested waters, which many see as a prelude to military bases and more forceful sovereignty claims.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states,” Mr. Carter said Saturday at an annual security conference in Singapore.

Ms. Tsai is a veteran of Taiwanese politics, having served as a minister in the government of former DPP President Chen Shui-bian in the 2000s. But the prospect of a Tsai win in January’s general elections is being watched warily in Washington given the party’s sometimes rocky relations with Beijing.

According to a senior U.S. official in 2011, a meeting between Ms. Tsai and the Obama administration left the White House “with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue stability” in the Asia-Pacific region. Many believe Washington’s skepticism contributed to her six-point defeat by the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party in the 2012 general elections.

But Ms. Tsai now says she is devoted to good relations with China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and considers the territory an indisputable part of the mainland.

“A more consistent and sustainable relationship with China will be a core goal of my administration. That requires open channels of communication, both with China’s leadership and the Taiwanese people,” she wrote Monday in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Incumbent Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who cannot run for another term, has backed closer economic ties with Beijing, reducing the potential for conflict and making Taiwan less of an issue in relations between the U.S. and China.

The DPP has never accepted the “One China” formula adopted in 1992, leaving wide open the possibility for Taiwanese independence. China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it seeks formal independence, which concerns the U.S. as intervention could be needed to settle the dispute.

In March 2014 massive student protests over Taiwan’s support of a free trade deal with China took the country by storm, drastically changing the political landscape. In local elections later that year, the DPP crushed the ruling KMT party.

“Last March’s Sunflower Movement — when activists took over the legislature to protest the lack of transparency in the review of a trade agreement with China — demonstrates what can result when the Taiwanese people feel they have been left out of the discussion,” Ms. Tsai wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

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