On Saturday, voters in Taiwan will elect a new president and legislature. With an increasingly belligerent China 100 miles away across the Taiwan Strait, the election could have significant implications for relations between Beijing and Taipei, as well as U.S. foreign policy in East Asia.
Though relatively new—it’s first democratic presidential election took place in 1996—Taiwan has a “very robust, very resilient and healthy democracy,” explained Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations.
Who are the candidates?
On the ballot are three distinct parties, each with a unique approach for managing the island nation’s relationship with China, though little variation regarding domestic politics. China, for its part, paints the election as a choice between war and peace: war if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is reelected and peace if voters elect an opposition party. None of the parties support reunification with China, but the DPP does not explicitly condemn Taiwan independence movements, much to Beijing’s chagrin.
The DPP is currently led by President Tsai Ing-wen. When Tsai was elected in 2016, China suspended cross-strait communication because, according to Beijing, she failed to endorse the “One China” policy. Also known as the 1992 Consensus, the policy was an agreement between the military dictatorship in control of Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party in China that there is only one China, with different interpretations. When Tsai dropped the “One China” policy, she intimated that there were actually two separate Chinas: the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China. She is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Tsai’s popularity has declined since first elected, though she still enjoys a 47.3 percent satisfaction rate.
Lai Ching-te is the current vice president, now running at the top of the DPP ticket. He is the most independence-minded of the three presidential candidates. The official stance of the DPP is that Taiwan is already a sovereign state and need not make any declarations of independence. Lai Ching-te’s running mate is Hsiao Bi-khim, former representative to the United States.
If Lai wins, voters can expect “more of the same,” Blumenthal said: continued defense modernization and an increasingly international focus on matters from trade agreements to access to international organizations. The DPP envisions Taiwan being nuclear free and having net-zero emissions in the near future.
Hou Yu-ih, the mayor of New Taipei City, is the candidate of the reformed Kuomintang (KMT), the party that previously ruled the island under a military dictatorship. During the Chinese Civil War the nationalist KMT was overthrown by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party and retreated to the island. The KMT instituted a military dictatorship on the island and called it the Republic of China, which is still Taiwan’s official name. The military dictatorship ended in 1992.
The party platform now advocates increased relations with China to lower cross-Strait tension. This includes disavowing Taiwan independence movements, but not going so far as to support reunification. The KMT is the most pro-nuclear energy party, previously managing the island’s nuclear plants under the military dictatorship. If elected, Hou will seek to reopen a closed nuclear plant and increase production of nuclear energy in order to shift away from coal use.
Ko Wen-je is the former mayor of Taipei and doctor who founded the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) in 2020, focusing primarily on domestic concerns. His platform, he said, offers a “third choice” between provoking China and acquiescing to it. The KMT and TPP have the most similar approaches to the cross-Strait relationship. He is also similarly ready to continue to use nuclear energy to pivot toward green energy. (All parties in Taiwan are committed to green energy and zero-net emissions, with nuclear energy as the only area of variation.)
Before a November filing deadline, the KMT and TPP announced they planned to form a unity party to challenge the DPP, but couldn’t agree on which candidate would be the presidential candidate and which would be the vice president.
What’s at stake in the election?
A number of Taiwan’s socioeconomic issues have been exacerbated by global economic trends, including low wages and high housing prices. The country also has a declining birth rate, magnified by a poor social care system. But the political parties in Taiwan are not ideological in the same way they are in other countries, according to Blumenthal. “All of the parties have essentially similar domestic and economic policies,” he said, highlighting energy as the exception. Given how tight the race looks to be—the last opinion polls to be published before the election showed the DPP maintaining a slight lead over the opposition parties—it’s unlikely the DPP will win a majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislature, which could lead to a logjam—particularly regarding energy.
The bigger issue is China. The candidates’ official positions on that are not particularly different from one another—neither formally declaring independence nor agreeing to reunification are on the table—but rhetoric is important. The DPP under Tsai sought to reengage diplomatic relations with China, but not under the terms China set—explicitly acknowledging Taiwan as part of the China and condemning Taiwan independence movements, and Lai is expected to continue Tsai’s stance if elected. Hou (KMT) and Ko (TPP) have both indicated they will be more acquiescent to Beijing in order to thaw relations—publicly using the language of “One China” and disavowing independence movements. But neither supports reunification.
If the DPP remains in power, Blumenthal expects that “China ramps its already existing levels of military coercion,” and the United States will continue the same policies of unofficial support of Taiwan. However, this may be the case regardless who wins the election. “I don’t think China has any interest in cooling relations across the Strait,” Blumenthal said.
In 1979, the United States severed official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legal government of China.” However, the U.S. maintained informal relations with Taiwan and continues to supply it with defense capabilities.
The U.S. rejects the use of force to settle the dispute, maintains trade ties, and sells arms to Taipei, though it does not officially recognize the island as an independent, sovereign state. The U.S. policy is “predicated on China’s commitment to a peaceful resolution,” Blumenthal said. “The responsible party for tensions here is China.”
Today, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy in East Asia, a pivotal location of strategic importance for the United States. If China chooses to launch an armed attack against Taiwan, it would mean the “unraveling of U.S. diplomatic interests in the region,” Blumenthal said. The Taiwan Strait is imperative for trade across the globe, connecting the Asian market to the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. walks a tightrope between Taiwan and China maintaining its position of “strategic ambiguity,” where it neither commits to military intervention nor rules it out. In recent years, however, President Joe Biden has made statements seeming to commit to military intervention in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
A DPP victory on Saturday would further alienate China, not because Lai will change the status quo, but because the Chinese Communist Party sees it as one more indicator that Taiwan voters are less amiable to China’s aims of reunification. If China decides to invade Taiwan and reunify by force, all bets are off regarding global peace and stability, not to mention the international economy.
Taiwan’s biggest export is electronics. There is also the reality that “a third of new processing power in the world is manufactured in Taiwan,” Chris Miller—professor of international history at Tufts University and author of Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology—told The Dispatch. Taiwan is known for its premium semiconductors, which are embedded in everything from dishwashers and cell phones to advanced military equipment. Previously, the economic importance of Taiwan for global markets was enough to hedge against Chinese aggression, but that is no longer the case. “Decision making in China has gotten more opaque, and less focused on the economy,” Miller said.
“If war breaks out, the economic ramifications just in the United States would be measured in the trillions [of dollars],” Miller added. “A wartime scenario would cause the greatest disruption to manufacturing since the Great Depression.”