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Taiwan's Tenuous Position

Taiwan's Tenuous Position

Taiwanese voters resisted Beijing's pressure campaign when they voted Tsai Ing-Wen's successor into office. Yet the threat to Taiwan remains.

David A. Andelman

The issue in the wake of Taiwan's watershed election is not so much who won, but how China and America will react to this new challenge to the metastable peace that has held, more or less, for three quarters of a century.

 For the first time in the history of democracy in Taiwan, the same political party has captured the presidency for three successive four-year terms. This time the victor on Saturday was Lai Ching-te, who now succeeds Tsai Ing-wen (who was term-limited under the nation's constitution). Their party is the Democratic People's Party (DPP). But now they have a true challenge internally. And meanwhile, Beijing is clearly watching from the periphery.

Not surprisingly, China retaliated against Taiwan’s electoral outcome with a warning. "Our stance on resolving the Taiwan question and realizing national reunification remains consistent, and our determination is as firm as rock," said Chen Binhua, spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office. Beijing is determined to maintain its stance on reunification and to adhere to the "one-China principle." While the United States does officially recognize this policy, it does not, for the United States, consist of recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.

This language from Chen Binhua was as tough as Beijing's statement went, however. "The outcomes of Taiwan leadership and legislature elections reveal that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cannot represent the mainstream public opinion on the island," Chen continued.

In the days since the election, both China and the United States have weighed in more directly, focusing on the stakes involved that go well beyond this small island. In Davos, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly expressed his hope for more engagement between Washington and Beijing despite the complexities in their relationship, and collaboration in areas of mutual interest despite many “differences," while warning against any “disruptive” moves against Taiwan such as “the use of force." At the same time, China's top spy agency, the Ministry of State Security said on WeChat, “Under the guidance of the party … the ministry will insist on combating ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities and interference from external forces, defend national sovereignty, security and development interests, and resolutely promote the great cause of the reunification.”

Beijing clearly recognized the reality of Saturday's vote. The DPP may have won the presidency, with a hardly resounding victory. But it lost its majority in the parliament. Moreover, Lai won only 40 percent of the vote in the presidential contest. The other 60 percent was divided between his two challengers—Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) and Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang—the party that is the direct descendant of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled the mainland seventy-five years ago in order to set up an anti-communist government on the island nation. It’s been a thorn to China ever since. 

In November 2022, an alliance was attempted between Lai's two opponents, both of whom favor varying degrees of more open dialogue with Beijing. But that effort failed. Still, more than half of Taiwan's electorate voted against DPP-style confrontation. And more than 70 percent of eligible voters turned out, some even flying in from abroad since in-person voting was mandatory. It appeared to be quite a serious yellow light to any hardline confrontational policy.

Even worse for the DPP and its confrontational tendencies, it lost its clear majority or even plurality in parliament. Indeed, for each of the last three elections in which it has carried the presidency, DPP’s legislative representation has been shrinking. In 2020, it lost seven seats from its 2016 majority, dropping to sixty-one from sixty-eight in the 113-seat legislature, while the Kuomintang (KMT) added three to thirty-eight and the newly-arrived TPP debuted with five. Now in 2024, the DPP has dropped another ten seats, the KMT added fourteen, and the TPP added three. This resulted in a one-seat plurality of fifty-two for the KMT, with the DPP scoring just fifty-one seats and an unaccustomed minority role. The last such split was twenty years ago, when the KMT's legislative plurality blocked military budgets proposed by the opposition president more than sixty separate times, forcing him to lower defense expenditures from a proposed $19.6 billion to $320 million.

President Lai paid tribute to this hard new reality in a glancing reference during his victory speech, suggesting that more dialogue with the opposition would be required. At the same time, in an apparent gesture to his less-than-overwhelming victory, Lai observed in dealing with mainland China, 

We must replace encirclement with exchanges, and confrontation with dialogue, in order to achieve peace and co-prosperity, and the only way out is to have peace, equality and a democratic dialogue. This is most in line with the interests of the people of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and is the only way for a win-win situation.

China, of course, has done its best to persuade Taiwanese voters about just how high the stakes were in this election. For Xi Jinping, reclaiming Taiwan is a core to the legacy he hopes for the regime as China's leader. To that end, confrontation played a key role in the leadup to Saturday's balloting. Flotillas of balloons (of the type that drifted across the United States a year ago), were spotted over the straits separating Taiwan from the mainland, one even drifting across the island itself the morning voters were going to the polls. During the election campaign, China sent at least forty-three military aircraft and seven ships into the airspace and waters near Taiwan, leading the island to scramble jet fighters, sending Taiwanese military ships into these same waters, and placing land-based missile systems on alert. Chinese military deployments frequently crossed into Taiwan's defense identification zone, though not its territorial space. 

At the same time, Chinese officials descended on the United States to help focus Americans on how high the stakes would be in the voting. Liu Jianchao, the senior official of the international department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reminded an influential group at the Council on Foreign Relations upon his arrival in New York: "For China, the Taiwan question is at the very core of the core interests. It’s the red line that mustn't be crossed and we take seriously the statements of the United States not supporting Taiwan independence. And we hope that the U.S. side will honor this commitment."

The week before the vote, senior Chinese military officials had flown to Washington, D.C., to resume defense policy cooperation talks, which Beijing had broken off after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen. The Chinese officials lost no time warning their American counterparts of the need to abide by the "one-China principle" and to stop arming Taiwan. Of course, if the Kuomintang again blocks Lai from getting a defense budget through parliament, all bets on this score would be off. 

All this may have played some role in Biden's post-election comment. Emerging from the White House Saturday morning, and in response to pool reporters' questions about his reaction to the Taiwan election outcomes, he said simply: "We do not support independence." Still, the United States has been quite successful in assembling a number of Asian nations around its notion of free navigation of the South China Seas in opposition to China's hegemonic persistence, which by extension should mean safer passage for Taiwan and its determination to maintain an independent path forward from the CCP.

The sobering reality, however, is that America’s military is now stretched thinner than it has been for a very long time. Between the desperate needs of Ukraine in its full-scale war with Russia, the Biden administration's commitment to supply Israel with whatever it needs in its war in Gaza, threats of expansion of this conflict to the Red Sea, and the Houthis activities in Yemen—not to mention Congress' reluctance to approve funding for either of these theaters—any major commitment to Taiwan's security poses serious challenges. 

For that matter, China is not ready for any full-scale invasion either. Just this month, China sacked its minister of defense and nine senior generals. The new defense chief, Admiral Dong Jun, is the first from the navy—a not-so-subtle suggestion of where the nation's leading challenges might be going forward. Moreover, the generals were from the "rocket forces"—accused of corruption after it was discovered a number of its major missiles were filled with water rather than rocket fuel, while in vast missile fields, the lids on silos would not allow effective launches.

Nevertheless, history, it would seem, is very much on the side of stasis. It was seventy-five years ago that on December 20, 1949, nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek took off at 2 p.m. from Chengdu airport headed for exile in Taiwan, passing over Guangzhou which had just been seized by Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army. Whether to pursue the plane, force it down, or shoot it out of the skies killing all aboard was actively debated. They did not have much time; the plane was in the air.

"It's better to kill first and then show off. Fight first and then talk about it," said the local party leader. "It would be a pity to let the number one war criminal run away."

"Whether it's a pity or not, we can't do it anyway if there's no response from the central government," was the reply from the ground. No response came from Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek landed, unmolested in Taipei.

Today, the standoff continues. 

David A. Andelman is a foreign correspondent, writer and columnist. His SubStack page is Andelman Unleashedand he is a columnist for CNN. A former correspondent in Europe and Asia for The New York Times, he was Paris correspondent for CBS News and is a chevalier of France’s Legion d’Honneur. His latest book is A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen, plus its podcast.

Image: President-elect Lai Ching-te and Vice President-elect Bi-khim Hsiao at an election event. (X: @bikhim)

ChinaDemocracyAsiaPolitical PhilosophyUnited StatesU.S. Foreign Policy