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13 January 2024

Taiwan’s “war and peace” election

The self-governing island is one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints – and its new president Lai Ching-te has little foreign policy experience.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 12 January. On 13 January, Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te won the election, defeating opponents Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, to become the next president. The result marks the first time a political party in Taiwan has won a third straight presidential election and, as Katie Stallard writes below, is likely to anger Beijing.

Taiwan is about to get a new president. After eight years in power, the territory’s first female leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has hit her term limit and is preparing to step down. She hopes to hand over to her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) colleague and current vice-president Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai), a doctor before he entered politics in the late 1990s and the son of a coal miner. But the race has been closely contested. Lai, whose campaign has been characterised by a distinct lack of charisma, is up against two relative outsiders: Hou Yu-ih, a police chief-turned-mayor from the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, and Ko Wen-je, an outspoken former trauma surgeon who founded the centre-left Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) in 2019 and has won support among younger voters for his straight-talking approach.

The latest polls show Lai with a five-point lead but, regardless of the outcome of the 13 January election, the incoming president will take power at a critical moment in Taiwan’s history. China claims the self-governing island as its own and during the past 18 months, the Chinese military has carried out an unprecedented number of live-fire drills encircling Taiwan, along with a record number of incursions by warships and fighter jets across the midway point of the Taiwan Strait. Senior US military officials have warned with increasing urgency that China’s leader Xi Jinping will soon have the military capabilities at his command to contemplate seizing Taiwan by force. Yet no matter who wins the election, it’s certain that Taiwan’s next leader will have little experience in foreign policy.

Lai has attempted to compensate for this deficiency by choosing Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s former de facto ambassador to Washington and self-proclaimed “cat warrior” (in contrast to Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomats) as his running mate. But he has already demonstrated his own capacity to blunder. Unlike Tsai, who has consistently adopted a cautious approach to cross-Strait relations, Lai remarked at a campaign event last summer that the DPP’s political goals would only be achieved “when Taiwan’s president can enter the White House”. (The US and Taiwan do not currently have official relations – Washington broke off formal ties with Taipei when it normalised relations with Beijing in 1979.)

This fuelled suspicions in Beijing that Lai, who described himself in 2017 as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”, is set on fundamentally altering Taiwan’s status and eventually declaring independence, even though he has clarified that he has no intention of doing so and plans to stick with Tsai’s approach. The head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned ahead of the election that the vote represented a “choice between war and peace”. If Lai wins, expect China to respond with renewed military exercises, economic and trade restrictions, and a concerted effort to strip away more of Taiwan’s 13 remaining diplomatic partners (down from 22 when Tsai took power in 2016). The Chinese leadership would regard a third consecutive DPP presidency as an alarming trend that must be halted and seek to lay down a red line accordingly.

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There would also be consequences for Beijing’s relations with Washington, which Chinese officials have repeatedly accused of interfering in Taiwan’s politics and supporting “secessionist” forces as part of a deliberate strategy of “using Taiwan to contain China”. Rather than acknowledging the agency of the people of Taiwan and the role its own aggression has played in driving them away, China will likely respond to a Lai victory by lashing out at the US, reversing the recent progress between the two nations made when Xi met with Joe Biden in San Francisco in November.

A win for Hou or Ko would likely be followed by at least a temporary reduction in tensions and reassure Xi that unification with Taiwan remains possible. (Beijing uses the term “reunification” despite the territory never having been governed by the Chinese Communist Party.) But this would ignore how consistently, for more than a decade, only a tiny minority of the Taiwanese population have any interest in coming under Beijing’s control. Just 1.6 per cent of people polled in June 2023, for example, said they supported unification with China as soon as possible, compared with more than 80 per cent who wanted to maintain some version of the status quo.

Confronted with this reality, China’s leadership has stubbornly refused to adjust its position, responding to perceived negative developments in Taiwan’s politics with threats and coercion – which only reminds the territory’s voters why they are so wary of Beijing. Xin Qiang, a scholar at China’s prestigious Fudan University, has called the current approach “congagement”, in that it combines “confrontational measures in the security, political, and diplomatic fields” with attempts to engage on the economic and cultural front. But as long as confrontation remains a significant part of the strategy, Beijing’s “marry me or I’ll burn down your house” approach has so far inspired caution in Taiwan’s politicians.

Then there’s China’s behaviour elsewhere, which Taiwan has watched closely. That includes its increasing belligerence towards rival claimants in the South China Sea, and, more immediately, the fate of Hong Kong. Despite being promised during the handover from British rule in 1997 that its citizens’ rights would be protected, and that the territory would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” for the next half-century, Hong Kong’s once-thriving civil society has been crushed. The model that was meant to guarantee these freedoms – known as “one country, two systems” – is also Beijing’s proposed arrangement for Taiwan. Little wonder this does not hold much appeal.

No matter who wins the Taiwanese election, then, the fundamental tension over the island’s future will remain: most of its population wants to preserve their democratic freedoms and maintain the status quo, while Beijing is equally determined to gain control. Xi has characterised unification with Taiwan as a “historic mission” that must not be passed down from generation to generation, but the more aggressively he tries to compel that outcome, the further he will push it away. Of course, it is still possible that the result of this election will prompt the Chinese leader to acknowledge his past mistakes and reconsider his approach. But that is the least likely outcome of all.

[See also: Taipei’s tipping point]

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