On 13 January, voters in Taiwan went to the polls and elected a new President with the eyes of the world on them. But why is the outside world so concerned about the outcome of the election in this small island? What is the significance of the election results to Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region and the rest of the world? What are the key developments we should be looking out for in the coming weeks and months? And what would be the implications of these developments for global security and economic stability?
To start to answer these questions and appreciate the significance of Taiwan’s election results, we need to understand its historical links and precarious relations with China.
Taiwan is approximately 100 miles from the coast of south-east China. It is a small island of 35,980 square kilometres with a population of 23 million. Prior to the period of Chinese control between 1662 and 1894 Taiwan was occupied by the Spanish and the Dutch. However, from 1895 to 1945 it became a Japanese colony. Following General Chiang-kai Shek’s defeat by Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949, the Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government retreated from mainland China to Taiwan.
The island was ruled by the KMT government until 2000 when Chen Shui-bian, the pro-independence presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the election. In 2008 the KMT regained control of Taiwan after the electoral victory of Ma Ying-jeou, who was re-elected as the Taiwanese President in 2012. But the KMT was defeated in 2016 and Taiwan has been ruled by the DPP government under President Tsai Ing-wen since then.
Political reform, economic success and Taiwanese democracy
For many years the Taiwanese government shared China’s view that there was but one China, although they contested each other’s claim as the sole legitimate government of the country of which Taiwan is an inseparable part. This consensus gradually declined as Taiwan’s economy and society underwent a significant transformation. In 1987 the KMT government introduced a programme of democratisation, which had a profound impact on Taiwan’s domestic politics and its relations with China.
Indeed, Taiwan’s political reform, together with its economic success, have boosted the confidence of Taiwanese politicians and people alike. As a result, there has been a greater demand for self-determination and recognition by the international community. Taiwanese leaders have become much more assertive in raising Taiwan’s political profile in the international arena.
In the meantime, Taiwan has developed closer economic and trade relations with mainland China. But the political change in Taiwan is viewed by Chinese leaders with deep suspicion. In particular, the direct presidential elections since 1996 have been regarded by Beijing as a means of legitimising a government separate from that of the ‘motherland’.
During Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency, the economic interactions between Taiwan and China continue but politically they are drifting further apart. The Chinese leaders have rejected Tsai’s calls for cross-strait dialogue, as they believe that this is just a smokescreen that conceals her real intention of pursuing Taiwanese independence.
China's 'dream' of reunification and the US factor
The Chinese government is unhappy with the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, where Taiwan is able to maintain its de facto independence while benefiting from trade and economic ties with China. Thus, Beijing has stepped up its economic and military pressure on Taiwan.
The Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for ‘reunification with Taiwan’. In fact, Xi has made this as a major national goal, which is a vital part of his ‘China dream’ or the ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. While China has indicated its hope of achieving the reunification gaol through peaceful means, it has never renounced the use of force to take over Taiwan.
While accepting Beijing’s ‘One-China policy’, the US government, particularly under the Biden administration, has shown a greater willingness to defend Taiwan’s security in the event of an unprovoked attack by China. The controversial visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a close colleague of President Biden) to Taiwan in August 2022 infuriated Beijing. It saw this as a blatant expression of American support for a pro-independence Taiwanese government.
China responded to the visit by firing multiple missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan and launching massive military exercises around the island. Indeed, China has intensified its military threat against Taiwan over the past two years. With rising tension across the Taiwan strait, China dispatched more than 100 fighter jets and nine warships into the Taiwan Strait on 18 September 2023, the biggest incursion within one single day.
Elections in the shadow of a powerful China
It is under this tense and unstable environment that Taiwan conducted its presidential and parliamentary elections. Prior to the elections, China made it absolutely clear that it did not wish the DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te to be the winner, calling him a ‘dangerous separatist’. To Beijing’s deep disappointment, however, Lai has now been elected as the next Taiwanese president. How will China respond to the election results in the coming weeks or months? What will this mean for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region and the world more generally?
Not surprisingly, China has refused to accept the election results claiming that the DPP does not ‘represent mainstream public opinion on the island’.
China’s reaction so far is rather subdued, which simply reiterates its long-standing and strong commitment to unification with Taiwan. But it does emphasise that the results will not ‘impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification’, which is consistent with the message of ‘historical inevitability’ Xi Jinping conveyed in his New Year speech before the election. This is clearly a reminder to Taiwan and its foreign supporters that the fate of the island is not entirely in the hands of the Taiwanese.
Hitherto, China’s responses are confined to war of words with Taiwan. Although four warships near the island were detected by Taiwan’s Defence Ministry the day after election, no military actions have been taken by Beijing. However, more belligerent actions before Lai takes office in May cannot be ruled out. Large scale military drills or regular dispatches of warships and fighter jets to the Taiwan area will certainly undermine the stability and security of the Asia-Pacific, which would be detrimental to the regional economy with wider economic ramifications.
Taiwan’s global significance
The Taiwan strait is a major shipping route between China, Japan, Europe and America with 88% of the world’s largest ships passing through this. Although China’s military exercises have not seriously affected container shipping, some vessels have had to manoeuvre around its drill zones to access ports in the region.
Another concern of frequent Chinese military activities in the Taiwan strait is that accidents or miscalculations could occur, which might lead to unintended or catastrophic consequences. This is particularly worrying as all official ties and formal communications between China and Taiwan have been suspended since Tsai Ing-wen became the president.
In addition, Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of semiconductors, which are essential components of digital devices and products from cars to mobile phones, healthcare to military equipment. A major conflict in Taiwan would definitely disrupt this supply chain affecting the life of the people across the world.
If, for whatever reason, the United States were to be involved in an armed conflict in the Taiwan area, it would bring the two superpowers into direct confrontation with profound regional and global security implications. This is because the US has close military allies in the region such as Japan and South Korea. Other US allies in Europe may well be dragged into such a conflict one way or another. It is therefore vitally important for all parties to avoid this nightmare scenario.
Although China has not recognised the legitimacy of the Lai government, it is unlikely that it will opt for a military solution to the Taiwan issue for the time being.
Most analysts believe that China does not yet possess full military capability to take over Taiwan by force, especially if it has the backing of the United States. In addition, China is currently facing considerable economic difficulties due mainly to the recent Covid lockdowns. Beijing is also keen to stabilise its relations with Washington following the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco in November 2023.
Taiwan's new administration under pressure
What China might do is to exert further economic pressure on Taiwan by banning individual tourists from visiting Taiwan, fining Taiwanese companies that operate within China, terminating tariff reductions on some products, and imposing import bans on Taiwanese products.
Despite the coercion from China, Lai has vowed to preserve Taiwan’s distinctive identity and democratic values. He has stated that he intends to continue with Tsai Ing-wen’s China policy, and that he will aim to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations. Taiwan will no doubt strengthen its defence capabilities further and develop a closer relationship with Washington in order to deter Beijing from invading the island.
Meanwhile, Lai will need to deliver his electoral promises in tackling socio-economic issues, such as employment, cost of living, education, and the social care system. The lack of a DPP majority in the Legislative Yuan following the parliamentary election means that it will not be easy for the newly elected government to push through its legislation relating to domestic issues, defence budgets and other major issues.
An uncertain future and volatile situation
The Taiwan election is over but the uncertain factors threatening regional and global security and prosperity remain.
China insists that the election outcome has not changed ‘the fact that Taiwan is part of China’. It has criticised the US, Japan and other Western countries for congratulating president-elect Lai Ching-te, asserting that this is ‘a serious interference in China’s internal affairs’.
Undoubtedly, China is in the process of reassessing its Taiwan strategy in the light of the election outcome.
It can be expected that Beijing will continue to exert economic and military pressure on Taiwan and constrain its international activities where possible. But China would try to avoid a major armed conflict with Taiwan, which might trigger an unpredictable reaction and intervention from the US.
As Lai just won 40% of the votes, China will seek to fortify the pro-unification forces in Taiwan hoping that the DPP will lose power in the next election. Indeed, President Xi Jinping urged the Chinese Communist Party to ‘do a better job’ in ‘winning the hearts of the Taiwanese people’ in a 2022 speech. This speech was published in the party journal Qiushi two days after the election and the timing of the publication is significant.
In conclusion, the relative peace in the Taiwan strait is likely to continue in the next few months and possibly years, which will be punctuated by tensions and crises. This is a volatile situation but unless and until the Chinese and Taiwanese leaders are able to find a satisfactory solution to the intractable problem, maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan strait is probably the best we can hope for.
A shorter and updated version of this article has been published in The Diplomat.
Professor Rex Li is a Research Affiliate of the Lau China Institute and School of Global Affairs at King’s College London. A specialist in International Relations, he has published widely on China’s international relations and East Asian security issues including China-Taiwan relations.