International News

What Do Taiwan’s Elections Really Mean?

Jamie Whitwell

On January 13th of this year, Presidential elections in Taiwan produced the country’s latest leader. Lai Ching-te will be the island nation’s new President, following Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure coming to a constitutionally induced close after 2 terms in charge.

The new man at the helm, who hails from the same Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as Tsai, represented the more anti-China candidate.

The DPP leader was able to harness 40% of the vote in an election which saw 14 million Taiwanese, or 72% of those eligible, head to the polls. 

The island of Taiwan is situated around one hundred miles off the coast of China, and ever since the 1949 Chinese Civil War, it has been the home of the Chinese Nationalists.

A separate and vibrant Taiwanese national identity has taken hold

Chiang Kai-shek relocated his government and supporters there to set up the Republic of China after defeat by the Communists. Slowly, a separate and vibrant Taiwanese national identity has taken hold. This is particularly true for the younger generation, whose ties to mainland China are being intrinsically weakened, and sentiment towards an independent Taiwan is high. Only 4% of people in Taiwan see themselves as only Chinese, whereas 66% see themselves as only Taiwanese.

The Chinese Communist Party in Beijing have consistently seen the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan as central to its ambitions under the One China Principle. This sees Taiwan’s sovereignty as belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and so the nation’s future should be realised by the Chinese people and its government, the PRC.

Despite years of relative peace across the Strait, where the Taiwanese have held de facto independence, and the PRC has refrained from using military force on the island, tensions have accelerated under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

Its elections have often been fought between the DPP and the Kuomintang

Taiwan is also home to a once fledgling, but now robust, democracy. Since the 1980s, when Taiwan first began to sow the seeds of democracy, political participation and organisation in the country have blossomed. Its elections have often been fought between the DPP and the Kuomintang (KMT), over differing aspirations of cross-strait relations.

The choice, however, between Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party and the Kuomintang, is not as simple as being between independence and reunification. Both advocate, more or less, for the status quo. That is, Taiwan remains a de facto independent country; here, they do not attempt an official lurch for independence, and remain politically ostracised by the world’s countries, institutions, and organisations, but it persists in being free from direct Chinese interference.

The difference is that the Kuomintang advocates for a more conciliatory relationship with the mainland, conceding that the Chinese problem is one that will never go away. Thus, they look to manage the situation, enter diplomatic arrangements with Beijing, and fiercely lambast any behaviour that would antagonise the PRC.

Looking at the United States and Japan to beef up their security

The Democratic Progressive Party, in contrast, look to cosy up with the West on a much larger scale, looking at the United States and Japan to beef up their security. The U.S., in particular, considers Taiwan a major ally in the region. Its Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), coupled with its own interpretation of the One China principle – which acknowledges the PRC as the sole sovereign of China, but unequivocally deters any attempt to retake Taiwan by force – has sponsored military sales, economic interdependence, and “informal” diplomatic relations between the two.

Taiwan represents a potential flashpoint in U.S.-Sino relations. China, as the world’s largest rising power, presents itself as the sole challenger to an American-dominated world system. Washington has begun to perceive this as a serious threat.

From the trade war during the Trump administration, western concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and geopolitical contentions over Beijing’s ‘wolf warrior diplomacy,’ fissures in the 2 power’s relations have opened.

The result of this election, therefore, has potential ramifications for U.S.-China tensions. It suggests overwhelming support for the United States from the Taiwanese electorate, and will undoubtedly further entrench the Americans in the region.

Taiwan is often referred to as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’

Taiwan’s importance to the U.S. is widely acknowledged. Strategically, Taiwan is often referred to as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’ due to its position in the First Island Chain.

A PRC-controlled Taiwan puts China considerably closer to the United States’ Guam, and the Japanese Ryukyu Islands. Frequent followers of these relations will also recognise the significance of Taiwan’s Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC). The island’s semiconductor industry is often hailed as the most important in the world, given its ability to forge high-tech microchips so efficiently. The industry, and the world-leading TSMC, will prove crucial in manufacturing the most modern technologies, including new military apparatus.

To lose Taiwan to China, from an American perspective, would also damage its fragile international order that constructs the relations between states based on its liberal values of democracy, sovereignty, and free markets. Failing to provide security to Taiwan will destruct its legitimacy not only in the region but across the world.

The CCP framed the choice […] as being between “peace and war, prosperity and decline”

The response to the election result from Taiwan’s increasingly menacing neighbours, the People’s Republic of China, was perturbingly ominous. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) framed the choice in these elections as being between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.” Recent Chinese responses to antagonization over the Taiwan issue have been to increase military activity around Taiwan. The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in 2022, for instance, sparked a series of military drills in the vicinity of Taiwan.

Will this result enkindle renewed military activity in the Strait? Whilst the jury is still out, the elections do prove that China is not omnipotent. Taiwan’s free and open democracy has wielded a result that may have agitated a great foe but reiterates the Taiwanese as a stoic and stubborn lot.

It does not want war, but becoming ‘just another Hong Kong’ is gut-wrenching to its people.

Jamie Whitwell

Featured image courtesy of Jack Brind via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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