TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The top U.S. representative in Taiwan says Washington is working with it to combat efforts by Beijing to influence upcoming elections on the island.
The U.S. is “aware that China is attempting to apply pressure through various means on Taiwan ... to influence Taiwan's democratic process,” Brent Christensen told reporters on Friday.
"We believe that malign actors are using disinformation campaigns to make people lose faith in democratic institutions,” said Christensen, who serves as the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taipei.
The U.S. and Taiwan have been “working very closely to combat these disinformation efforts” by sharing information and experience and mobilizing civil society, he said.
Independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen is seeking a second term in the Jan. 11 vote for head of state and lawmakers.
China is believed to strongly favor Tsai’s main opponent in the race, Han Kuo-yu of the Beijing-friendly Nationalist Party.
Self-governing Taiwan split from China in 1949 and transitioned to full democracy in the 1990s. China claims the island as its own territory, which it threatens to annex by military force, and opposes all official contact between the U.S. and the island.
Despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations, the U.S. is legally bound to ensure the island can defend itself and to treat all threats to it as matters of “grave concern.”
Christensen’s remarks came days after Tsai told reporters that China’s Communist leaders were “using every means they can” to interfere in the election campaign.
China’s previous efforts to influence Taiwan’s democracy have yielded mixed results and could become a liability for Han, who in March met with Chinese officials on a visit to China, Macao and Hong Kong and has struggled to shake accusations of collusion with Beijing.
Han held an early lead in public opinion surveys but has trailed Tsai, often by several percentage points, since June.
Several of the National candidates for at-large seats in the legislature — those that are distributed according to the party’s proportion of the popular vote — also have strong China connections and have spoken in favor of unification with China.
One, retired Lt. Gen. Wu Sz-huai, has been heavily criticized for leading a delegation of retired officers to a ceremony held at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, at which he stood for the Chinese national anthem and listened to an address by President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
Wu was also a leader of a pro-China group that staged violent protests outside the legislature last year, at one point invading a nearby children’s hospital.
Those protests were ostensibly sparked by plans to reduce pension benefits for retired officers and other public servants that had been criticized for being overly generous. Some accused China of spreading misinformation exaggerating the size and impact of the cuts.
Election interference would be a continuation of Beijing’s unrelenting campaign to undermine Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government through increasing diplomatic, military and economic pressure.
That has included wooing away Taiwan’s remaining handful of diplomatic allies and barring its participation in international gatherings, in a campaign to demoralize and isolate the island.
A total of seven countries have switched recognition to China since Tsai was elected in 1996, leaving just 15 nations that maintain formal ties with Taiwan.
China has also stepped up its military threat through words and deeds.
The sailing of China’s Type 001A aircraft carrier and accompanying ships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday was viewed by some as its latest display of saber rattling.