Frontrunner of Taiwan's January presidential election Lai Ching-te said he will maintain the status quo concerning the island's relations with China during a televised debate among three candidates Saturday, while his rival from the main opposition party accused him of peddling Taiwanese independence.

Lai, the nominee of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and vice president in the current administration of Tsai Ing-wen, pitched himself as the best person to lead Taiwan in terms of gaining recognition from the international community and standing with the world's democratic camp following Tsai's policies.

Taiwan presidential election candidates (from L) Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Nationalist Party and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party pose for photos as they take part in a televised policy presentation in Taipei on Dec. 30, 2023. (Central News Agency/Kyodo)

"I will maintain the status quo, without being too humble or overbearing, and protect Taiwan," Lai said, adding that he will uphold stability in the Taiwan Strait and promote peace in the Indo-Pacific.

But Hou Yu-ih, the nominee of the main opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), claimed that cross-strait tensions would worsen if Lai wins the Jan. 13 election.

"Everyone is so nervous and afraid of war" with the mainland amid China constantly flying warplanes close to Taiwan, Hou said, criticizing the Tsai government's decision earlier this year to extend compulsory military service from four months to one year, starting from January.

Hou said official communication and exchanges between Taipei and Beijing have stopped under the Tsai government. He also rebutted Lai's opinion about garnering recognition from the international community, pointing out that nine countries have cut off official relations with Taiwan since Tsai took office in May 2016.

Meanwhile, Ko Wen-je, the candidate of the Taiwan People's Party, the second-largest opposition party, accused Lai of toning down his pro-independence rhetoric for the election so that he could win more votes.

The Saturday debate was the only opportunity for the three candidates to question each other directly. They previously took part in three other televised policy presentations, in all of which they were each given the chance to speak three times.

According to recent opinion polls, Hou has been trailing Lai by a narrow margin.

If Lai wins the election, the DPP will be the first party to secure three consecutive terms since the island held a direct presidential poll in 1996.

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