Taiwan's likely new ruling party chief Eric Chu bullish on China ties despite poll setback

TAIPEI (AFP) - The sole leadership candidate for Taiwan's ruling party said Sunday he would keep pushing for stronger ties with China even though its Beijing-friendly policy was blamed for its worst-ever local election setback.

"The development of cross-strait ties will continue," Eric Chu, incumbent mayor of New Taipei City, told reporters after registering with the Kuomintang (KMT) party for chairmanship elections slated for January 17.

Chu said meetings and forums with the Chinese Communist Party would not be suspended, though he was tight-lipped when asked if he would like to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The remarks come after KMT's humiliating defeat in local elections last month, which analysts said was a test of the government's detente with China since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.

Chu, 53, will run uncontested in party elections to succeed Ma, who stepped down as KMT's chief earlier this month to shoulder responsibility for the election setback.

The KMT lost five of Taiwan's six large municipalities - the most hotly contested seats - in the elections, seen as a key barometer before the 2016 presidential race.

New Taipei, a newly created municipality which surrounds the island's capital, was the only one it retained.

Analysts say the odds of the major opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seizing power in 2016 have increased following their landslide victory in the local polls.

Chu, despite being a rising political star in the KMT, edged out his DPP rival by only a narrow margin in New Taipei.

Tense relations with China have warmed since Ma was elected in 2008 on a platform of improving cross-strait ties and reviving the slowing economy.

But public sentiment has turned against the Beijing-friendly approach as voters say trade deals have been agreed in secret and not benefited ordinary Taiwanese people.

Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war. Beijing still claims the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification - by force if necessary.