international analysis and commentary

A dangerous deadlock over Taiwan

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On January 13, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) secured an unprecedented consecutive third term in office – the first since the introduction of direct presidential elections in 1996. Former Vice-President William Lai Ching-te along with his running-mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, a former envoy to the United States, won over 40% of the total vote. This was more than enough in a three-way race against a divided opposition, almost evenly split between Hou Yu-ih (33.5%) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Ko Wen-je (26.5%) of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

Although the DPP came in a close second in the parallel parliamentary elections – winning 51 seats compared to KMT’s 52 seats in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan – there is still some chance that it could form a majority in the upcoming legislature in tandem with independents and the TPP, which won 8 seats. Voter turnout was slightly lower than the past, but at 72% was still relatively high among established democracies.

Western allies were quick to congratulate the president-elect, with a spokesman for the US State Department praised Taiwan’s electorate “for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process”. British Foreign Secretary and former prime minister David Cameron hailed the historic elections as a “testament to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy”.

But the People’s Republic of China, which considers Taiwan as a ‘renegade province’ and the DPP as a troublemaking political movement, was quick to denounce and dismiss the elections result in the self-governing island nation. Chen Binhua, the spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, maintained that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan” and warned that the election “cannot change the basic pattern and the development of cross-Strait relations, nor can it change the common desire of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to draw closer.”

 

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Earlier, China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, had made it clear that all options remain on the table, and that any concrete move by Taipei towards de jure independence will be met with decisive force.  In his acceptance speech, Lai tried to project responsible statesmanship by emphasizing his commitment to “maintain[ing] peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. But Beijing is in no mood for either compromise or dialogue. The upshot is a perilous deadlock, with neither side showing any signs of softening their stance on cross-straits relations while hoping that a fragile status quo will hold for the foreseeable future.

Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim

 

A Contentious Race

The election outcome was far from inevitable. After initially emerging as an outsize favorite, Lai steadily lost his edge over rival candidates as the election day approached. Amid an economic slowdown and growing youth disaffection, voters’ appetite for a ‘third party’ candidate dramatically increased in favor of TPP.

Together, the KMT and TPP polled close to 60% of total votes, thus the two sides considered a potential joint ticket throughout October and November last year. But thanks to personalistic politics and intra-party tensions, neither Hou (KMT) or Ko (TPP) were willing to slide down as part of a joint ticket. Thus, Lai managed to secure the presidency with only a plurality of votes, compared to Tsai who comfortably won a majority of votes (57%) back in 2020.

But despite the relative weakness of the DPP party, however, the opposition was also deeply constrained by a new consensus in Taiwanese politics. Authoritative polls show that a majority of voters consider themselves as “Taiwanese only”, while negative views of China are widespread.  As a result, all three leading candidates had to adopt a relatively tough stance on cross-strait relations, effectively ruling out ‘reunification’ with the PRC for the foreseeable future.

This meant that the ‘China question’ in this year’s elections were primarily tactical, namely how to best manage cross-straits relations, rather than strategic, namely debating the merits of eventual reunification  as in previous Taiwanese presidential elections and KMT leaders. In many ways, this represents a major setback for Beijing, which has sought to influence the outcome of Taiwanese elections through a combination of intimidation and economic incentives.

 

Dark Clouds Over the Horizon

Although not totally unsurprising, the Taiwanese elections present China with a major strategic dilemma. To begin with, it proved the futility of its constant threats over the past year, including aggressive maneuvers by different branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around the self-ruling island nation.

Nor has Chinese disinformation and ‘sharp power’ campaign in Taiwan managed to significantly affect voter sentiments. By and large, majority of Taiwanese as well as leading experts are skeptical that Beijing is serious about its threats of invasion.

Moreover, the Chinese leadership is confronting a major economic slowdown at home, thus increasing the incentive for projecting strength overseas. To complicate matters further, Xi Jinping’s full consolidation of power at home means that his own personal capital and reputation is now at stake.

At the moment, there are no signs that China is willing to restore cross-straits communications channels, which were severed when DPP won its first term in office eight years ago. If anything, the Asian powerhouse will likely tighten the screws by, inter alia, conducting regular military drills near and imposing more economic sanctions on Taiwan.

 

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Much will, therefore, also depend on the actions of the incoming Lai administration, which has, so far, signaled strategic pragmatism. Facing a potentially hostile legislature and growing economic discontent at home, the president-elect has made it clear that he wants a “balanced” approach that “maintains the cross-strait status quo.”

Yet, the DPP leader has also emphasized his determination “to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China” and continue his predecessor’s efforts to enhance Taiwan’s diplomatic capital through a wide network of partnerships with likeminded democracies. Given Beijing’s inherent distrust of the DPP, this will be an extremely difficult balancing act, which will test the mettle of Lai’s leadership for the next four years.