Tibet crisis raises tensions over Taiwanese elections

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China's crackdown on rioters in Tibet may have dashed hopes of closer ties to Taiwan and ratcheted up tensions in one of Asia's biggest flashpoints.

The presidential election in Taiwan looked like a sure thing for the pro-Beijing Kuomintang, but shock at the sight of Chinese troops attacking monks in Tibet has led some voters to reconsider. The election is crucial as the result will dictate whether the island's bid for formal independence remains a thorn in Beijing's side or if there will be closer relations with mainland China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province to be taken back by force is necessary.

Highlighting just how crucial the election is to regional stability, two US aircraft carriers have been sent to the Taiwan region for training exercises.

In Taipei, citizens attended candlelit vigils beside Buddhist monks and Tibetans for those killed during the protests. "That could be us," said one taxi driver. "Today it's Tibet but tomorrow Beijing could do that in Taiwan. We can't trust China."

Before the riots in Tibet, a victory for the Kuomintang (KMT) looked assured in what is the only true democratic vote on Chinese soil. Instead the KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou's big lead over rival Frank Hsieh from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who favours a harder line towards Beijing, has been eroded in the past few days as Taiwan's voters react to the violent crushing of dissent in Tibet.

Alongside Tibet, Taiwan is the biggest political issue for mainland China. Beijing sees Taiwan as inviolably Chinese ever since Chiang Kai-shek's KMT lost the civil war with Mao Zedong's Communists and fled to the island in 1949. A year later, China sent the People's Liberation Army into Tibet.

Mr Hsieh is campaigning that to vote for the KMT could make Taiwan "a second Tibet". "What [the Chinese premier] Wen Jiabao says and what Ma says are pretty much the same, right? It's that Taiwan is part of China," said Mr Hsieh.

Not be outdone, Mr Ma, who campaigned on a platform of closer business links with China, has also adopted a much more anti-China approach. He described Mr Wen's tentative offer of peace talks with the Dalai Lama as "arrogant, absurd and self-righteous" and suggested an Olympic boycott if the violence continues in Tibet.

Lin Asoka, 26, a law student, said: "In the past, not too many people cared about the Tibetan issue but when it came out it shows the true nature of the Chinese government."

The KMT ran Taiwan as a one-party state for 51 years and has been trying to regain the presidency since losing the office to the current incumbent President Chen Shui-bian in 2000. Although the KMT was the Communist Party's civil war enemy, these days the KMT leadership wants more trade with China and supports reunification.

Lo Chih-cheng, director of the political science department of Soochow University in Taipei, said: "The China issue has been a big part of the campaign," he said. "What they did in Tibet has caused a lot of concern in Taiwan and this will have an effect, especially in a tight race".

The KMT still has the support of those who worry the island may not be able thrive economically without forging closer links with Beijing. "I am going to vote KMT because I think that the economy is most important and I think the KMT will do a better job," said Anita Yang, 25, a political science student.