Exclusive: TIME Meets Taiwan Presidential Hopefuls Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen

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((l to r) Taiwan's opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen and Taiwan's President Ma Ying- jeou. ( Patrick Lin / AFP / Getty Images ; Wally Santana / AP)

This is a guest post from Asia Editor Zoher Abdoolcarim.
(Updated: Jan. 5, 2012 at 5:20 a.m. EST)

TIME’s Zoher Abdoolcarim and Natalie Tso spoke recently in Taipei with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and his chief challenger, Tsai Ing-wen, about the Jan. 14 election and the triangle that is China, Taiwan and the U.S. Here are some highlights:

1. President Ma Ying-Jeou

TIME: Why should you be re-elected?

Ma: Because we changed Taiwan; we succeeded in transforming and upgrading Taiwan.

How would you answer Taiwan citizens who say that the improved cross-strait climate has helped the commercial situation for Taiwan but, at the same time, diluted Taiwan’s identity?

There are indeed some people who have that view, but they are the minority. A public opinion survey conducted by [Taiwan’s] Mainland Affairs Council [showed that] 61% of respondents believe our signing of agreements with mainland China has been beneficial to Taiwan, while 29% do not think so.

How would you convince that minority?

Before I took office, [annual] trade with mainland China already exceeded US$100 billion. The mainland is our largest trade partner, our largest investment destination, and our largest source of trade surplus. These are incontrovertible facts that must be faced. So what we must do is tell such people that while exchanges with mainland China do carry risk, we have to work to minimize these risks and maximize benefits, and that our policies have done just that. Which is to say, we have to help the doubters realize that what we are doing is in Taiwan’s interest.

Are you worried that U.S. support for Taiwan, which has been so staunch for so many decades, is showing less resolve than it used to? The Obama administration is politically quite weak, and the U.S. economy and the U.S.’s geopolitical role is not as strong as it used to be. This can affect Washington’s influence with Beijing regarding Taiwan.

A minority of the U.S. academic community has proposed abandoning Taiwan. But this is not mainstream opinion. The majority of people in the U.S. government and academia believe that the United States should continue to maintain strong relations with Taiwan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated [recently] in Hawaii that Taiwan is a very solid security and economic partner of the United States. This refutes the “abandon Taiwan” line of thinking.

Many other countries and governments in Asia look to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship as a barometer of continuing U.S. engagement in this region…

We can consider the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by looking at another indicator: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. In the past three-and-a-half years, the U.S. sold Taiwan $18.3 billion worth of weapons of a defensive nature in three separate packages. This is the largest dollar amount of weaponry sold to Taiwan by the U.S. in more than a decade. This shows the high level of cooperation we maintain in the areas of security and military affairs. It shows that mutual trust has been restored at the highest levels of our respective governments. Many people say that the present day marks the best of U.S.-Taiwan relations in 30 years.

If you are re-elected, will you try to visit mainland China in your second term?

We do not fully exclude the possibility, but we don’t have any timetable. We will adhere to the principle of putting “pressing matters before less pressing ones, easily resolved issues before difficult ones, and economics before politics.”

Has Beijing given you any indication that it might reduce the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan given the improvement in cross-strait relations?

No, they never have.

What would you like your legacy to be?

My plan for my country is, during the first four years, restore just governance and meet world standards; and, in the next four, reinvent ourselves and seek excellence. Many of my key programs require a long period to be implemented. So, regarding my legacy, ask me again in four years.

2. Tsai Ing-wen

TIME: Why should you be elected?

Tsai: Because I am the better leader … I want to make a difference. The way the government conducts its business has to be changed. The leader has to be someone who has that sort of determination, and we do not see this kind of determination in the current president.

Given that Taiwan has not suffered any great disaster, the incumbent would normally have the advantage. But the polls are very close. Why?

He is not enjoying this advantage. People are not happy with the way government resources are being distributed. The wealth gap is bothering a lot of people. People want a fairer government, a fairer president to reallocate the resources of the government. The No. 1 problem people are facing is looking for a job that he or she likes. The president is apparently very proud of what he has done in the cross-strait area, but there are lots of people who are unhappy with how he conducts business in this area too.

How would you handle cross-strait relations differently?

[Ma] believes that the way to rescue the economy here is to get closer to China. He wants to get concessions, he wants to get benefits from China, and so he fools himself to accept the political conditions set by the Chinese. China knows it very well, and while they are giving all these concessions to us, they want something in return. If we want to have peaceful relations with China, that is fine. But if the way you keep peace and stability in a relationship is to move Taiwan closer and closer to China while China is still a very much an authoritarian regime—it is not a democracy yet, not a decent market economy—there are a lot of risks involved. A lot of people are concerned that we are moving so close and so quickly to China that we would at some point pass the point of no return, meaning the only way, the only option is to be with China in the future rather than being on our own. Many people here still want to have that option open because they haven’t made up their mind yet. As a democracy, the leader cannot make this vital decision for the people.

Do you accept that engagement with China is essential for Taiwan, as it is for any government, economy or society anywhere?

We should have a normal relationship with them; by normal I mean we follow international rules and use multilateral frameworks to form our relationship in trade and economic areas. We treat China as a normal trading and economic partner.

The U.S. seems to prefer, in terms of its relations with Beijing, the status quo: Ma. What is the sense you got when you recently went to Washington D.C.?

My sense is that, of course, there are some people in the government in Washington D.C. who have a certain preference, but I was told, repeatedly, by different agencies of the U.S. government that this is not their official position.

You have been a head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. The Chinese know you, and you know them. Do the Chinese have a more sophisticated understanding now of the complexities in Taiwan than before?

They have a better understanding of what we are and what we are after, but it is still not enough. Sometimes they have difficulty interpreting the events here correctly. And sometimes they would tend to use the interpretation by the KMT’s politicians or supporters.

How important is the U.S. relationship to you?

It is a very, very important factor. We need the market there, the technology, the business network. Politically, of course, the U.S., despite the flaws in its systems, is still a democracy—we like to associate with democracies. And strategically, the U.S. is a counter-balance to China, a rising China that is not yet a democracy. We are not facing China alone; we are facing China together with a lot of other people in the region.

-With reporting from Natalie Tso