Taiwan Election Has Implications for US–China Relations

Taiwan Election Has Implications for US–China Relations
Taiwan's Vice President Lai Ching-te and running mate, Hsiao Bi-Khim, pose for a photo after registering for the upcoming presidential election at the Central Election Commission in Taipei, Taiwan, on Nov. 21, 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Antonio Graceffo

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would prefer for the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) or Kuomintang (KMT) to win the upcoming Taiwan elections, scheduled for Jan. 13. Still, the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is expected to retain the presidency and maintain their policy of remaining independent of China while fostering close relations with the United States.

During their November meeting, CCP leader Xi Jinping conveyed to President Joe Biden that Taiwan is the most important issue in U.S.–China relations. The CCP’s Taiwan Affairs Office has portrayed the upcoming Taiwan election as a decision between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.” While this statement was meant as a veiled threat, it is indeed accurate that the election’s outcome will shape Taiwan–China relations, influence Washington–Beijing ties, and carry consequences for global security and the economy.

Taiwan’s elections are essentially a substitute referendum on the Taiwanese people’s desire to either integrate with China or remain independent and strengthen ties with the United States. The DPP, the current ruling party, will be up against two major opposition parties, the KMT and the TPP. Neither party is nearly as assertive as the DPP when it comes to Taiwan’s sovereignty, and the KMT, in particular, leans toward fostering closer relations with China and reducing dependence on the United States.

The DPP’s vice-presidential candidate is Hsiao Bi-khim, who studied at Oberlin College and Columbia University. Under the current administration, Ms. Hsiao served as Taiwan’s envoy to the United States. Favoring closer ties with the United States, she has been branded a separatist by Beijing.
The DPP’s presidential candidate is Lai Ching-te (William Lai). Regarded as anti-CCP, he has been leading in most opinion polls. The CCP has called Mr. Lai a troublemaker for his refusal to accept the 1992 “consensus,” which makes Taiwan part of China. He emphatically rejects the “One China principle,” stating that accepting it would lead to Taiwan losing its sovereignty. He also said he did not believe Beijing’s promise to maintain the peace or the status quo.
Ko Wen-je, former Taipei mayor and TPP founder, is in second place in many polls. He favors a “two state” theory for Taiwan–China relations. Pointing to their shared cultural history, Mr. Ko stresses that the two countries should have a “special relationship.” Furthermore, he believes that the decades of debate over Taiwanese independence have left the nation stagnant. In his TikTok videos, he echoes CCP propaganda that Washington will not continue to support Taipei. Following Beijing’s lead, the opposition has warned that if Mr. Lai is elected, the economic and security situation will worsen. Many Taiwanese, however, see both the KMT and TPP as threats to democracy.
With the future of cross-strait relations at stake, it is not surprising that the CCP is interfering in the elections. The Chinese regime is spreading misinformation about the United States abandoning its commitment to defend Taiwan, as well as promoting a narrative that the majority of Taiwanese people no longer want to be independent from China. Taiwan’s National Security Bureau Director-General Tsai Ming-yen has accused Beijing of conducting a “smokeless war” against Taiwan. Additionally, Beijing has been employing intimidation tactics, with more frequent military incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).
CCP propaganda notwithstanding, the United States has shown no intention to abandon Taiwan. Under the Trump administration and continuing under President Biden, the United States has intensified its military and diplomatic support for the island nation. High-level visits, such as that of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with increased defense aid and presidential drawdown authority being used to expedite advanced weapons delivery to Taiwan, have raised the ire of Beijing. In response, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and PLA Air Force have become increasingly aggressive in the Taiwan Strait.
As much as Taiwan could be the trigger for a war between the United States and China, many analysts think the war will not happen because both sides have so much to lose. To invade Taiwan, Beijing would have to install a blockade, which would disrupt global shipping but would also isolate China. The United States and its allies would bring harsh sanctions, and the Chinese economy would be brought to a standstill.

Looking at the Russia–Ukraine war, some speculate that sanctions are ineffective because Russia’s economy is still standing, even if more precariously than before. The reason Russia is surviving, however, is that Beijing is bypassing sanctions and underwriting Moscow. If China came under similarly harsh sanctions, however, there are no countries rich enough to do the same for China. Additionally, there would be no will among the Group of Seven to do so. Therefore, sanctions on China would be more complete and more effective.

A war would also devastate Taiwan’s economy, as 40 percent of the island’s exports go to China. Beijing launching a war that impedes these trade ties would be a classic example of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. A direct blow to China would be the loss of Taiwan’s most valuable export—semiconductors.
The CCP wants to see the Kuomintang win, but this is extremely unlikely as the KMT has little support, particularly among young people. The TPP is doing better with young voters because the island’s ongoing economic stagnation has left many young people either jobless or working long hours for low salaries while facing sky-high real-estate costs that prevent them from moving out of their parents’ homes or getting married.
Consequently, between the two opposition parties, the TPP is expected to appeal predominantly to younger voters while potentially siphoning support from the KMT among older voters. Barring the formation of an opposition coalition, Mr. Lai of the DPP stands as the frontrunner with the highest probability of success.

If the DPP wins, it will send a signal to the CCP that the people of Taiwan do not wish to be part of China. Beijing’s reaction is yet to be seen but will most likely consist of issuing angry statements and proclamations, coupled with large-scale military drills and harassment in the Taiwan Strait.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., is a China economic analyst who has spent more than 20 years in Asia. Mr. Graceffo is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport, holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and currently studies national defense at American Military University. He is the author of “Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion” (2019).