Taiwan (Republic of China), China, William Lai Ching-te (DPP), Hou Yu-ih (KMT), People’s Republic of China, United States.
On 13/01/2024, Taiwan (Republic of China) will hold elections to elect a new legislature and a new president at a vital juncture in regional geopolitics. The current president Tsai Ing-Wen from the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) is stepping down due to the two term limit on presidential terms in the Republic of China’s constitution. Thus far, polls show that the election could be tightly contested, but the DPP candidate is expected to win albeit with a smaller majority.
Political issues have revolved around the correct approach to maintaining cross-strait stability, though it is not the sole concern. The cost of living is a pressing issue on the island, as is the rapid rise in the cost of housing. Nevertheless, the PRC’s growing military and economic power pose existential problems for Taiwan and is an essential part of its political cleavages.
The governing Democratic People’s Party (DPP) candidate is William Lai Ching-te, the current Vice President. He is broadly perceived as the ‘continuity’ candidate from president Tsai as well pushing for closer security ties with the US and its allies Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The main opposition Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), is fielding Hou Yu-ih, a former high-ranking police official who is generally in favor of closer ties with the PRC. The more incendiary claim is that he accuses the DPP of provoking cross-strait relations to the point of war with the PRC. There is a third candidate, Ko Wen-je, a member of the new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who is focusing on domestic governance issues.
Under Xi Jinping, the hardline policies pushed by the PRC include further military exercises around the island, proliferation of disinformation campaigns, and refusing to renounce the use of force. The Chinese Communist Party minister for Taiwan said that this election is a choice between peace and war, clearly pointing to Beijing’s preferred candidate.
Predictions have suggested that William Lai (DPP) is likely to win given that he is ahead in the polls. However, there are a few days of campaigning left and he is likely to face challenges. No ruling party has won three elections consecutively in Taiwan since its first elections in 1996, and the cost of housing and living remain important sticking points for a continuity candidate.
Taiwan’s presidential election is crucial for cross-Strait relations and the regional security situation in the Asia-Pacific. The return of the DPP’s William Lai to Taiwan’s presidency could see more military exercises from China over the coming weeks. It is also likely to raise tensions in the medium term given Xi Jinping’s hardline policies toward the island. William Lai is likely to seek more military support from the US, assurances on economic security and pursue regional partnerships with Japan and South Korea. Whether Taiwan’s military deterrence is sufficient is an open question, but William Lai will continue to push for an external relationship. If the KMT candidate is elected, there could be a short-term reduction in tensions given China’s preference for their party, but even the KMT has ruled out the ‘one country two systems’ model pushed by Beijing.
Xi’s aggressive policies to reunify Taiwan with the mainland has prioritized hard military exercises and shows of force to intimidate Taiwan, reflecting the state of US-China relations and China’s domestic politics. China’s acute economic challenges and social tensions suggest that Beijing will maintain high pressure on the island, but will hopefully stop short of an invasion. Xi’s centralization of power in the military since 2015 and his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission demonstrates his accumulation of power in the PLA structure. The latest overhaul of the People Liberation Army’s leadership, including three senior officers and one new Central Committee member to replace dismissed Lin Shang, suggests that despite 12 years in power, Xi’s confidence in the PLA’s ability to fight and win wars is not complete.
The US-China war scare between August 2022 and March 2023 is still acute. While most war games have focused on an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, Beijing could take a range of measures that require a response and up the pressure on Taipei’s allies. Blockades of the island, parts of the island, and other provocative actions short of invasion could raise the pressure immensely. There is at least a floor under the US-China relationship with the meeting of Biden and Xi in San Francisco in November 2023, but the longer term trajectory is one of intensifying competition across political, military, economic and security fields. With the US in an election year and Xi’s apparent grip on power in the Chinese Communist Party, this is expected to worsen in the coming years.
Taiwan’s upcoming election holds significant implications for security of the Indo-Pacific. A victory from William Lai (DPP) or Hou Yu-ih (KMT) will shape cross-Strait tensions in short and long term, including Taiwan’s society and its delicate relations with an assertive China. While there is little indication of an imminent full-scale invasion of the island, Xi could up the pressure further. The US’ commitment to Taiwan’s security and sovereignty would be tested if the PLA conducted actions short of an invasion. The evolving dynamics in the Indo-Pacific and the crucial role of Taiwan requires attention.