The 2024 global election calendar is packed, and with geopolitics currently top of mind, many of this year’s elections have geopolitical undertones associated with them. It is worth thinking about how Taiwan’s foreign policy platform and geopolitical relationships with China and the United States will evolve based on the outcome of their recent election.
Taking advantage of a split opposition, Taiwan’s ruling party Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won an unprecedented third straight presidential election this weekend. President-elect William Lai is a savvy and experienced politician, capable of leading Taiwan through potentially challenging times ahead. On domestic issues, the DPP is generally to the left of its largest opponent, the Kuomintang, once led by Chiang Kai0shek, who brought the Republic of China government to Taiwan in 1949 after repeated defeats by Mao Zedong’s Communists. Internationally, however, the DPP view of Taipei’s place in the world is comfortable with Reagan-style republicanism.
China would have preferred a Kuomintang victory as a peaceful reunification would become more likely, although still not immediately achievable. Military incursions would likely have been scaled back, possible paused, and China-Taiwan engagement would have resumed.
Given the threats Lai’s incoming administration will face, it needs full support from the U.S. and across the global western powers. Chinese president Xi Jinping is undoubtedly outraged that Beijing’s latest effort to subvert free elections failed once more, likely again backfiring, and increasing DPP support. Through political and military threats and intimidation, media influence operations and outright efforts at subversion and corruption, China worked hard to prevent another DPP presidential victory.
Thwarted by the voters, Xi will likely turn to more dangerous methods to gain control over Taiwan. He has already stressed that that is his objective, even to Biden when they met in the U.S. recently. For Xi, the civil war is not over, and it must be concluded. Since the opposition holds a small majority in Taiwan’s incoming legislative Yuan, the Lai administration will face political constraints that outgoing DPP president Tsai Ing-wen did not face.
Beijing and its sympathizers argue that Lai and the DPP are reckless, risking war across the Taiwan Strait, and that the U.S. long ago agreed that Taiwan is part of China. In the 1972 Shanghai Communique, president Nixon agreed that America acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there but is one China and that Taiwan is part of China. It seems that in 1972, Ching and Mao each still believed in ultimately prevailing over the other in China’s civil war. At least Mao did and that is where Xi is getting his thinking from. The civil war is still going on in his mind. It likely makes sense from his perspective, but times have changed. In a recent poll in Taiwan, only 3% consider themselves Chinese, 63% Taiwanese and 34% Taiwanese-Chinese.
Taiwan meets the key criteria of an international state with a defined territory and population and fully functioning government. Democratically elected government even, which is not the case in one-party communist China. For Taiwan, these facts constitute to a de facto Taiwanese independence, whether China likes it or not. Taiwan’s freedom and liberties are provocative and threatening for the Chinese authorities, who fear the spread of ideas might jeopardize the authoritarian regime.
Biden’s reaction to the election in Taiwan was that the U.S. does not support independence for Taiwan. Biden does not want to create more friction with China, a key trading partner and an increasingly strong global power. However, today, Taiwan is more threatened by China than ever. With the Middle East and Ukraine now consuming Washington decision-makers, Beijing may be tempted to take advantage of Taipei’s incoming government. The Biden administration should work closely with Japan, South Korean and Australia to make it clear that they will support Taiwan in case of conflict.
The upcoming U.S. election might also create more uncertainty, but at this point, it seems clear who the bad guy is. China has not changed and is still a rough state creating misery for its own people and around the globe. It would be a mistake to ignore reality. China has been bad news since 1949 and this will not change any time soon.