In an ideal world, Taiwan’s national elections would be nothing to do with China or the US. They would simply be an opportunity for the self-governing island’s 24 million people to choose the politicians and policies that best satisfy their aspirations. But when polling stations open on 13 January, cross-strait relations and geopolitics will weigh on the minds of voters.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposing Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) all claim that they are best placed to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence and peace with China, despite differences in how warmly they would approach Beijing.
With incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP stepping down having reached the two-term limit, her vice-president, Lai Ching-te, is the front-runner, followed by Hou Yu-ih of the KMT and Ko Wen-je of the TPP. Polls suggest, however, that the DPP might lose its majority in the Legislative Yuan, as Taiwan’s parliament is known.
True to its roots, the DPP has been the most outspoken about the growing threat posed by Beijing, while the KMT and TPP have said that they would seek to open channels of communication with the Chinese leadership, while also boosting Taiwan’s defensive capabilities.
However, the major challenge for all remains that the Communist Party of China (CPC) claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory and refuses to renounce the use of force to take the island. General Secretary Xi Jinping has further intensified the military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since he took office in 2012.
Tensions over Taiwan have been exacerbated by the rapid deterioration of the relationship between China and the US. The US maintains extensive unofficial ties with Taipei and is committed by legislation to provide it with the means to defend itself. President Joe Biden has even vowed to send US forces to Taiwan in the face of an unprovoked Chinese attack, although senior administration officials have suggested that Washington is still following a policy of ’strategic ambiguity’. While Beijing is unlikely to pursue a war of choice against Taiwan any time soon, the risks are rising that escalation, provocation and miscalculation might bring the US and China into conflict over Taiwan.
While Western politicians speak with increasing concern of the threat that China poses to global stability and democracy, for Taiwan it is an existential question. The successful consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy in recent decades has intensified the growth of a distinct Taiwanese identity. The more Taiwanese democracy and identity bed in, the harder it will be for Beijing to secure a peaceful integration of Taiwan, something that very few Taiwanese want.
As this uncomfortable reality has started to dawn on Beijing, it has ratcheted up its grey-zone tactics, using military intimidation and information operations to try to break Taiwan’s resolve, and diplomatic initiatives to isolate Taiwan internationally.
Whoever wins the presidency will likely face more pressure from China over the next four-year electoral term. If it is Lai, who Beijing distrusts deeply, that pressure will likely come in the shape of more aggressive military manoeuvres and exercises. If it is Hou or Ko, there will be likely be increased pressure on the Taiwanese government to engage politically with Beijing on terms that could undermine Taiwan’s autonomy.
Taiwanese voters will, of course, be influenced by a much wider range of factors than cross-straits policy when they make their choice. As in many countries, slow wage growth and a generally sluggish economy have sapped the popularity of the ruling party, the DPP. Ko, a blunt-speaking doctor, has used his insurgent TPP to tap into frustration with both the DPP and the KMT. But the debate over how to manage relations with China has been a decisive factor in many national elections since the 1990s.
Ultimately, none of the presidential candidates has a clear-cut answer for how to sustain Taiwan’s democracy and self-government long term. They are all offering different ways to bide time and keep Beijing at bay by bolstering Taiwan’s defences and minimizing provocations.
Many analysts call Taiwan’s de facto independence the ‘status quo’. But the situation is far from static. China is changing, becoming more assertive under Xi Jinping. Taiwan is changing, developing its own national identity and further consolidating its democracy. The relationship between China and the US is changing too, becoming more confrontational and raising the geopolitical and geoeconomic stakes around Taiwan.