A second China-friendly candidate announced his intention Tuesday to run for president of Taiwan, a move that could undermine the re-election chances of the incumbent.
The announcement by veteran politician James Soong raises the prospects that enough partisans of President Ma Ying-jeou could defect to Soong to push China skeptic Tsai Ing-wen over the top in the tightly contested Jan. 14 election.
That would be a big blow to Beijing, which is quietly supporting Ma's candidacy, because it sees the Harvard-educated jurist as the best bet to create conditions for Taiwan's eventual return to the mainland.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing continues to claim the island is part of its territory, to be brought back in the fold by persuasion if possible, or by force if necessary.
A defeat for Ma might also concern the United States, Taiwan's most important security partner. Washington has lauded Ma's attempts to lower tensions across the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait _ mostly through a series of ambitious commercial initiatives _ and some Obama administration officials are believed to be concerned that a victory by Tsai could reverse that process, raising the prospect of renewed instability in the volatile western Pacific.
Speaking before supporters in Taipei on Tuesday, Soong said he had collected some 350,000 signatures to back his presidential bid _ 100,000 more than necessary. Despite polls showing his support levels at less than 15 percent, he insisted he was running to win.
"We can take down two people, not just one," Soong said, an obvious reference to concerns that his participation would work against Ma, and directly to Tsai's advantage.
At the forefront of those concerns is the precedent of Soong's role in Taiwan's 2000 presidential elections, when he and Lien Chan split the vote of Ma's Nationalist Party, handing victory to Chen Shui-bian of Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party.
The 2000 precedent appears to be very much on China's mind. In late September, a Soong spokesman confirmed that Beijing "disagreed" with Soong's then-prospective candidacy, after Taiwan's Next Magazine quoted Soong as saying that that Beijing thought it could dig into support for Ma.
But in his remarks Tuesday, Soong denied that relations with China were the main issue in the current campaign, insisting that economic matters were far more important.
"We've heard the people's voice that they want long-term jobs and a government capable of taking care of their needs," he said.