Taiwan Election: Why It Matters, and What It Could Mean for U.S. and China

Taiwan Election: Why It Matters, and What It Could Mean for U.S. and China

Taiwan will choose a new president on Saturday, bringing new leadership to volatile relations with an increasingly belligerent Beijing. The outcome could raise or lower the risks of a crisis, giving China a potential transition point to revive engagement, or to increase the military threats that could ultimately draw the United States into a war.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has asserted Beijing’s claim over the self-governed island of 23 million people by sending warplanes and ships to the skies and waters around Taiwan almost daily. Washington, while maintaining “strategic ambiguity” over its plans, has helped to bolster the island’s military, and President Biden has signaled that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

On Saturday, as the election kicked off, long lines formed at voting booths, and candidates were swarmed by cameras as they cast their ballots. After a week of loud rallies, the mood was one of solemn duty: people holding voting notices, nodding to friends, and quietly entering small booths to cast paper ballots that would be counted by hand after the polls close at 4 p.m.

The election’s main contest, results of which are expected by Saturday night, pits the governing Democratic Progressive Party, or D.P.P., which has promoted Taiwan’s separate identity, against the opposition Nationalist Party, which favors a more conciliatory approach to China. Chinese leaders have denounced the D.P.P. as separatists and suggested that a vote for four more years under that party would amount to choosing war over peace.

The D.P.P.’s presidential candidate, Vice President Lai Ching-te, is trying to win a third consecutive term in power for his party, which no party has achieved since Taiwan adopted direct presidential elections in 1996.

The opposition Nationalist Party’s candidate, Hou Yu-ih, is seeking to bring his party back to power for the first time since 2016. A maverick, third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je, has focused more on domestic issues, promising to shake up the political system.

Mr. Lai, of the D.P.P., has led by just a few points in many recent polls, though victory is not out of reach for Mr. Hou, the Nationalist candidate. Mr. Ko has been gaining momentum but remains a long shot.

China has loomed over this year’s race, as always, but domestic problems have become more prominent than in past elections. The cost of living is rising, drawing complaints especially from young voters, whose turnout rate — usually much lower than older people’s — could play a decisive role.

Mr. Lai, 64, a former doctor and longtime politician, has promised to stick to President Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy of keeping Beijing at arm’s length while seeking to avoid conflict, and strengthening ties with the United States and other democracies. He has also offered a package of policies, called National Project of Hope, aimed at upgrading Taiwan’s economy and generating better jobs for young people.

The Nationalist candidate, Mr. Hou, 66, is a former police chief and currently the mayor of New Taipei. He has said that he wants to stabilize ties with China, while continuing to build up the military and maintain close ties with Washington. He accuses the D.P.P. of putting Taiwan’s security at risk by failing to create the conditions for talks with Beijing.

Mr. Ko, 64, a surgeon who was formerly the mayor of Taipei City, is the upstart third-party candidate. He has focused on bread-and-butter issues such as housing, while saying he would take practical steps to improve ties with China.

Even if Mr. Ko loses, his Taiwan People’s Party could pick up enough seats to play an influential role in the next legislature, which will also be elected on Saturday. The D.P.P. is widely expected to lose its majority there, and no party is likely to win more than half the seats this time.

Taiwan is a self-ruled democracy, but it is not recognized as a country by most governments, which instead have ties with Beijing. That unsettled status means that Taiwan’s international standing and its relationship with China always weigh on voters’ minds.

Polls show that most Taiwanese people support maintaining the island’s ambiguous status quo and not risking Beijing’s wrath by pursuing outright independence. Yet surveys also indicate that fewer people see prospects for a peaceful agreement with China that they could accept.

The Chinese Communist Party’s tightening authoritarian hold over Hong Kong has deepened skepticism of Beijing in Taiwan. All three main presidential candidates reject China’s “one country, two systems” formula, used in running Hong Kong, and say they will protect Taiwan’s status quo.

Where they differ is on the question of diplomacy and trade.

The Nationalists argue that holding talks and doing more business with China would help keep the risks of war in check. The D.P.P. argues that Taiwan should focus on expanding trade and ties with countries other than China so it can avoid a dangerous dependence on its powerful neighbor. Mr. Lai has said dialogue with Beijing is possible if Taiwan is treated with “equal respect.”

How both China and the United States respond to the election and the next four years of Taiwanese government will shape the question that hangs like a dark cloud over the island: Will there be a war?

Since Ms. Tsai became president eight years ago, China has escalated military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese jets and warships regularly test Taiwan’s military, eroding the significance of the median line in the strait between the two sides, an informal boundary that Chinese forces rarely crossed in the past. Mr. Xi has made clear that China reserves the right to use force to take Taiwan if it deems it necessary.

Few observers believe that an invasion by China is imminent.

Regardless of who wins the election, Beijing is likely to continue to pressure Taiwan, but it may expand its mix of tactics. It could impose greater demands and increase military incursions. It could also open some doors to engagement, with economic sweeteners or other tools. Taiwan’s next president will be sworn into office on May 20, and China may use the time before then to test the incoming leader.

Mr. Lai is Beijing’s greatest concern. Chinese officials characterize him as an untrustworthy, unreconstructed supporter of independence for Taiwan.

Beijing could also use economic punishments, by revoking tariff concessions granted to Taiwanese products, for example. Or it could seek to poach more allies from the handful of countries that still maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The United States could also quietly emphasize its desire for caution to Taiwan’s next president, at a time when it is dealing with wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. The White House has announced that it will send a high-level delegation of former top officials to Taiwan after the election — a common occurrence for decades. China responded by urging the U.S. to “refrain from intervening” in Taiwan’s affairs.

A victory for Mr. Hou could attract a warmer reaction from Beijing. China would likely frame the win as a rebuke to pro-independence forces. But the Nationalist Party today is not nearly as friendly to China as it used to be. Mr. Hou said he would “not touch the issue of unification” while in office.

Any post-election lull in tensions may not last, even if Mr. Hou wins. Mr. Xi called Taiwan’s unification with China “a historical inevitability” in an address on Dec. 31. Tensions between the U.S. and China, over not just Taiwan but many other issues, make peace harder and harder to maintain.

China has tried to influence Taiwan’s elections for decades. During a vote in 1996, Beijing held large-scale military exercises and launched missiles into the waters near Taiwan.

This time, China has sent high-altitude balloons over the island, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry, in what some experts saw as a warning.

Taiwan’s government has also repeatedly warned that China is waging “cognitive warfare” aimed at influencing Taiwanese voters by using disinformation and media manipulation. The influence efforts have included videos spreading rumors about Ms. Tsai’s personal life, which her office said were false.

Experts in Taiwan have also found online campaigns sourced to China that have sought to amplify skepticism about the United States, with messages arguing that it is not truly a friend to Taiwan and will abandon the island.

China has mostly ignored the accusations of interference. It has called the election “purely an internal Chinese matter,” officially refusing to acknowledge the vote as legitimate.

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