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Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn, speaks during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Gou declared Monday that he will run as an independent candidate for president in Taiwan's 2024 election, ending months of speculation.閻文韜/The Associated Press

Billionaire Terry Gou has announced an independent bid to become Taiwan’s next president, ending months of speculation and expanding an already crowded field in the campaign to succeed current leader Tsai Ing-wen.

Mr. Gou, the founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, has long dallied with presidential politics, twice running to be the candidate of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT). After losing his most recent bid in May, he stoked speculation that he would run as an independent, even though doing so risks splitting the vote and ensuring a win for Ms. Tsai’s chosen successor, Vice-President William Lai.

January’s election comes amid escalating tensions between Taiwan and China, which claims the island as its territory and has vowed to seize it by force if necessary. Speaking Monday, Mr. Gou said the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had led Taiwan “towards the danger of war.”

“If you give me four years as president, I promise I will bring 50 years of peace to the Taiwan Strait,” he said. “I will never let Taiwan be the next Ukraine.”

Foxconn, one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers, has major operations in China, and Mr. Gou has long touted himself as the best person to navigate Taiwan through U.S.-China tensions. In 2019, he retired to launch his first bid for the KMT nomination, saying he had been inspired to do so by the sea goddess Mazu.

Multiple reports said his real inspiration was fellow outsider businessman Donald Trump. The then-U.S. President called Mr. Gou “a friend of mine” and “one of the most successful businessmen in the world.” The billionaire also received praise from China, with the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, noting that he had a “unique advantage in handling the relationship between Taiwan, the mainland and the United States.”

But Mr. Gou lost the KMT nomination in 2019, leading him to quit the party, which he branded “corrupt.” Many KMT supporters feared then that he would run as an independent, though in the end it didn’t matter, as Ms. Tsai cruised to re-election even without Mr. Gou as a candidate.

Taiwanese politics is roughly divided between two camps: “pan-blue” parties, the largest of which is the KMT, that reject unification with China but seek a closer and more stable relationship with Beijing; and “pan-green” parties, which lean toward greater independence, led by the DPP.

Taiwan has been de facto independent since 1949, when the Republic of China government retreated to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists. Since then, Beijing has pressured countries to recognize the People’s Republic as the only China and not maintain official relations with Taipei. The U.S., Canada and many other countries acknowledge Chinese claims to Taiwan but do not endorse them, regarding the situation as unresolved and opposing any unilateral change to the status quo.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has become far more aggressive toward Taiwan, conducting large-scale military exercises and flying sorties near the island’s airspace. China frequently blames the DPP and its allies in the West for increasing tensions, though Beijing’s actions have largely backfired if they were intended to win over Taiwanese public opinion, which has long trended in favour of greater independence.

Under Ms. Tsai, the DPP has underperformed in local elections, which have been dominated by domestic issues, but easily triumphed at the presidential level, where voters care more about foreign policy. Ms. Tsai is term-limited from running again, however, and Mr. Lai is seen as a more radical candidate. This, combined with growing fears of a potential war, has led many in the pan-blue camp to be confident of their chances.

Polling supports this confidence, but only if the camp is united. With Mr. Gou’s announcement, there are now three candidates vying for the anti-DPP vote: the Foxconn founder, the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the centrist Taiwan People’s Party.

“As of now, it hurts the pan-blue cause more than it helps,” said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, of Mr. Gou’s campaign. Supporters of the three non-Lai candidates are united in a desire to defeat him, “but they want their preferred candidate to win more than they want the DPP out.”

“So long as that mentality holds, it keeps the pan-blue camp split and makes the DPP’s life easier,” Dr. Nachman said.

Mr. Gou – who earlier said he would support whomever the KMT chose as its candidate – has called for a “Grand Public Opinion Alliance” to negotiate a single ticket against Mr. Lai. Dr. Lachman was doubtful this could be pulled off, but he said “the DPP is not in the clear: If Lai’s popularity drops or Ko or Gou drop out, the KMT can still win.”

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