Think of what happened to Hong Kong when you vote, Taiwan president says

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen appealed to voters on Sunday to think of what had happened to Chinese-controlled Hong Kong when they cast their ballots next month, saying peace must be backed up with a commitment to boost defences.

Taiwan prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 13 as China, which claims the democratically governed island as its own territory, ramps up military pressure to assert its claims, including two major war games around the island in the past year and a half.

China and Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), have cast the election as a choice between war and peace. China detests Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its presidential candidate, Vice President Lai Ching-te, calling them dangerous separatists.

Addressing supporters at a campaign rally for Lai in the capital Taipei, Tsai said the opposition was using "alarmist talk" of war and peace.

"I want to ask you all here, does anyone want war? Nobody does," she said. "Look at Hong Kong and think of Taiwan. We don't want Hong Kong-style peace. We want dignified peace."

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide autonomy under a "one country, two systems" framework, which China has also offered to Taiwan - with little support on the island.

Beijing in 2020 imposed a tough national security law on Hong Kong, which it said was vital to restore stability after the city, a global financial hub, was rocked for months by sometimes violent anti-government and anti-China protests in 2019.

Tsai, barred by term limits from seeking re-election, has made bolstering Taiwan's defences a cornerstone of her tenure, a stance that Lai, leading in the polls, has pledged to continue.

They say only Taiwan's people can decide their future and have repeatedly offered talks with China but been rebuffed.

"To ensure peace we need to strengthen our ability to defend ourselves. Our house will have locks on it, but not to provoke our neighbours," Tsai told the rally. "Only with determination can we defend dignity, and only with strength can we ensure peace."

KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih said on Saturday a vote for the DPP was equivalent to "sending everyone out to the battlefield" because supporting Taiwan independence would touch off a war.

The KMT traditionally favours close ties with China but strongly denies being pro-Beijing. It has pledged to reopen talks with China if it wins election.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by William Mallard)