Taiwan’s presidential election is on January 13, 2024. Beijing’s adverse reaction to the election results could potentially escalate tensions between the US and China. Against a backdrop of increased military aggression in the Taiwan Strait, China’s campaign of intimidation casts a shadow over the democratic proceedings on the island.
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The implications of this election are profound for the U.S., a staunch supporter of Taiwan’s democracy, arming it despite acknowledging Beijing’s one-China policy. The heart of the electoral discourse is the candidates’ competence in navigating Chinese threats, collaborating with the U.S., and engaging with other partners to quell the specter of war. As a third-party contender challenges the conventional two-party system, Taiwan’s political landscape is marked by unprecedented division.
- Date: January 13, 2024
- Stakes: Potential escalation of U.S.-China tensions
- Backdrop: Increased military aggression in the Taiwan Strait
- Concerns: China’s campaign of intimidation affecting democratic proceedings
DPP, KMT, TPP, and the Shadow of China
Since its inaugural competitive presidential elections in 1996, Taiwan has embraced democracy, captivating the public’s allegiance. The 2020 elections recorded an impressive voter turnout of nearly 75%, a noteworthy figure for a system with non-compulsory voting.
Amid the democratic fervor, apprehensions loom regarding China’s exertion of influence on the election outcome by shaping public opinion. During a recent visit, a representative underscored a unique dynamic in the January 13 election: The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang (KMT), the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) – and China.
Leading the charge for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is Lai Ching-te, facing criticism for issues ranging from wage stagnation to a contentious nuclear power phaseout. Despite these challenges, Lai tops the polls, framing himself as a leader who can ensure Taiwan’s safety.
- Democratic Heritage: Taiwan’s embrace of democracy since 1996
- Voter Turnout: Impressive 75% in 2020 elections
- Dynamic for 2024: DPP, KMT, TPP, and China influencing the electoral discourse
He contends that over the past eight years, his party has fortified ties with the U.S., Japan, and other democracies while steadfastly resisting Chinese pressures. Lai’s altered stance, distancing himself from pro-independence views, positions him as an advocate for maintaining the status quo without outrightly declaring independence. In a diplomatic dance, Lai expresses willingness to collaborate with Chinese leader Xi Jinping for peace in the Taiwan Strait, a proposition certain to irk Beijing, which labels him a “separatist.”
Navigating ‘One China’ Conundrum
On the other side of the spectrum is Hou Yu-ih, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate known for his Beijing-friendly stance. His objective is to restore dialogue and enhance business links with China to alleviate tensions. Despite his efficiency as the former mayor of New Taipei City, Hou lacks experience in managing China relations and foreign affairs.
Opposing Taiwanese independence, he acknowledges the island as part of “One China,” navigating the nuanced interpretations between Taipei and Beijing. Hou’s candidacy, as the first native Taiwanese nominee for the KMT, seeks to appeal to middle-ground voters. However, traditional KMT supporters exhibit tempered enthusiasm for his Taiwanese background, leading to the strategic choice of Jaw Shaw-kong as his running mate to consolidate support.
Moreover, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party has emerged as an unexpected force, capturing the attention and support of a demographic disillusioned with the conventional political dichotomy. A former trauma surgeon and mayor of Taipei, Ko’s unorthodox approach resonates particularly well with the discontented youth. Pledging to reform the electoral system for greater inclusivity of diverse parties, Ko presents a compelling alternative to the established political order.
Democracy vs. Autocracy
The KMT anticipates 2027 as a critical year, as per a CIA report stating that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered military readiness for a potential invasion of Taiwan by then. Hou claims that under the KMT, “there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
The DPP rejects this simplified narrative, framing the election as a choice between “democracy and autocracy,” while the TPP’s candidate, Ko Wen-je, seeks a middle ground, criticizing the DPP as too hostile and the KMT as overly submissive. The TPP pledges to keep communication channels open with Beijing, deeming the current suspension in high-level talks unhelpful. Despite their “pan-blue” nature, the TPP aims to appeal to younger voters dissatisfied with the KMT. In this intricate political landscape, the stage is set for a climactic showdown in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections.
Mounting evidence suggests that China is actively influencing Taiwanese public opinion through disinformation campaigns, with a particular focus on younger audiences via platforms like TikTok. The Chinese-owned TikTok is prohibited on government-issued devices in Taiwan, but countering disinformation becomes challenging as it infiltrates more widely-used social media and traditional news outlets.
Lai Ching-te (DPP):
- Distancing himself from pro-independence views
- Maintaining the status quo without outrightly declaring independence
- Willingness to collaborate with Xi Jinping for peace, labeled as a “separatist” by Beijing
Hou Yu-ih (KMT):
- Beijing-friendly stance
- Objective to restore dialogue and enhance business links with China
- Acknowledges Taiwan as part of “one China”
Ko Wen-je (TPP):
- Unexpectedly popular, resonating with the disillusioned youth
- Nuanced stance on cross-strait relations, acknowledging both sides as one family
- Ambiguity on whether Taiwan is part of “one China”
Economic Tensions with China Reverberate Globally
As trepidation looms among the Taiwanese populace with over 80% expressing concerns about an escalating China threat, the specter of potential conflict not only casts a shadow on the island’s geopolitical landscape but also reverberates through its international business and investment prospects. This unsettling backdrop holds ramifications for Taiwan’s economic interests and, by extension, has a ripple effect on China and the global community at large.
China stands as Taiwan’s largest trading partner, constituting a substantial quarter of total trade in 2021. Recognizing the imperative to “de-risk” and diversify the economy, the current government underscores the need for economic security and supply chain stability. The push to encourage businesses to perceive diversification away from China as a security imperative is a pivotal aspect of this strategy.
Amidst these economic maneuvers, the DPP remains wary of China’s strategic use of economic activities to sway political outcomes. Tactics involve targeting business figures and lower-level political players, employing social, cultural, and religious exchanges to mould public opinion in Taiwan. Despite some parallels in public diplomacy activities, the DPP deems China’s influence as a cause for concern.
Conversely, the KMT argues that decoupling Taiwan’s economy from China is no simplistic task. Existing strong business ties with China and the democratic ethos constrain the government from coercing businesses to disengage, especially when faced with competition from regional rivals like South Korea and Japan.
Cross-Strait Relations Hang in the Balance
The aftermath of the election holds varied implications for cross-strait relations. A victory for Lai Ching-te is anticipated to trigger heightened Chinese aggression, given his perceived pro-independence inclinations. In contrast, both Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je adopt a more conciliatory approach toward China, signaling a potentially favorable reception from Beijing. They express a willingness to reinitiate talks and trade, fostering an environment of thawed relations.
Despite this optimism, skepticism pervades among experts regarding the efficacy of improved relations in curbing China’s military threats around Taiwan. A Hou presidency is seen as a potential strategic move to “buy time” by appeasing China through dialogue while concurrently bolstering Taiwan’s defenses. However, apprehensions among Lai’s supporters linger, fearing that closer ties with Beijing may pave the way for increased Chinese influence within Taiwan’s governance.