TAIPEI U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain would seek to defend Taiwan and play hard ball with China if he comes to office, but Democratic front-runner Barack Obama would further sideline Taipei as he courts Beijing.
Analysts say neither candidate would radically change today's status quo, but the former Vietnam War U.S. Navy pilot McCain is seen favoring Taiwan, which is struggling for an international voice.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Beijing has vowed to bring the island back under mainland rule, by force if necessary, but relations have improved since the inauguration of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in May.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, recognizing "one China," but remains the island's biggest ally and arms supplier. Taiwan is recognized by only 23 countries compared with about 170 recognizing permanent U.N. Security Council member China.
Like current President George W. Bush, Obama proposes working with China on economic and security goals while pushing Taipei and Beijing to settle their differences peacefully.
"People in Taiwan tend to think McCain takes a rather conservative view toward China and his war veteran image appeals to them," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong.
Individual candidates aside, recent U.S. administrations have tried to improve their relations with former Cold War enemy China to get a share of its booming markets.
China is also an important voice in the current global credit crisis, an ally in the fight against terrorism and host of talks trying to rein in North Korea's nuclear program.
STRIKING A BALANCE
Obama, 47, and McCain, 72, have talked up China and Taiwan throughout their campaigns as they vie to replace Bush after eight years, during which Washington focused more heavily on the Middle East.
"Obama is not somebody who divides the world into us versus them," the candidate's Asia policy adviser, Evan Medeiros, told reporters in Taipei in mid-October. "Getting U.S. relations with China right is part of that effort."
McCain has said he would approve future arms sales to Taiwan, a topic that draws Beijing's ire, including a controversial F-16 jet fighter package. Obama has been less explicit but Medeiros said he had not ruled out specific arms sales.
Taiwan, McCain believes, deserves "meaningful participation" in the World Health Organization and other international bodies dominated by China allies, which have blocked the island for decades, his foreign policy adviser Randy Schriver said.
"What is the obstacle? It's China," Schriver told a video conference. "Sometimes, if a cause is worthy enough, you have to stand up despite China's objections."
McCain has blasted Beijing over transparency, export safety and monetary policies, while Obama has said he would go tough on China over international trade disputes.
But neither candidate is seen jeopardizing U.S. diplomatic relations with Beijing or strong informal U.S. ties with Taiwan.
"My sense is that there wouldn't be much difference," said Alex Chiang, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Just in case, Taiwan's foreign ministry plans to contact either winner before his inauguration in January to put Taiwan's agenda on the table early, a ministry official said.
"It's hard to predict what a McCain or Obama administration will do," said Derek Mitchell, Asia director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Still, he said, "McCain and his people have more of a record on Taiwan."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington)
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Tarrant)