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Taiwan VP says international community blames China for rising tension

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) -The front-runner to become Taiwan's next president said on Friday that the international community blames the rise in tension across the Taiwan Strait on China rather than on the island, and the reality is Taiwan is already a country.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has ramped up military and political pressure to force the island to accept its rule, and has a particular dislike of Lai for comments he made in the past about being a "worker" for Taiwan independence.

China staged military exercises around Taiwan on Saturday in an angry response to brief stopovers that Lai made in the United States this month, on his way to and from Paraguay, viewing it as a sign of U.S. support for Taiwan's separate identity from China.

Speaking to foreign reporters in Taipei, Lai said it was not Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen or Taiwan that were to blame for tensions.

"The international community understands that recent tensions are not because of President Tsai or because of Taiwan, but because of China," Lai said at the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Lai has said he does not seek to change Taiwan's official name, the Republic of China. Both Lai and Tsai have said that as Taiwan is already an independent country there is no need for a separate declaration of independence.

Lai said the reality was that Taiwan routinely elects its own leaders, from the grass roots all the way to the top, giving it the right to be called a state.

"In fact, it is a sovereign, independent country, there's no doubt about that," he said.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his remarks, but the Chinese government has repeatedly denounced Lai for being a "liar" and a separatist.

Lai is the DPP's presidential candidate for a January election and is leading in the polls. Tsai cannot run again after two terms in office.

Lai said that China would try and use "various means" to interfere in the election and if it was successful, and affected the outcome, it would seriously damage Taiwan's democratic system.

"I believe Taiwan's people will firmly protect democratic values, and courageously decide their own next president," he said.

Lai said his support for maintaining the status quo across the strait was "unwavering" and vowed to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region if elected, reiterating an offer for talks with China based on "parity and dignity".

China has demanded that Taiwan's government accept that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to "one China", which both Tsai and Lai have declined to do, before it will consider talks.

"Real peace cannot come from losing sovereignty for exchanges and cooperation," Lai said.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Sarah Wu; Editing by Edmund Klamann, Robert Birsel)