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Taiwan Votes. China is Watching.
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Taiwan Votes. China is Watching.

Cross-strait relations aren’t directly on the ballot, but the One China policy looms large.

Happy Friday! Another one bites the dust: Longtime New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick announced on Thursday that he will part ways with the football team he led to nine Super Bowl appearances and six victories. Some will say he created the greatest, winningest dynasty in NFL history. New Yorkers, however, know better.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The U.S. and U.K. conducted airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen on Thursday night in response to the Iranian-backed group’s ongoing attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea. “These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes,” President Joe Biden said in a statement released last night. “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.” The airstrikes hit more than a dozen targets, including radar, launch sites, and weapons storage facilities, and followed increasingly strong warnings of “consequences” from Western nations should the Houthis not cease their aggression in the region. Also on Thursday, Iran’s navy boarded and seized a Greek oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, escalating the maritime violence in the region against international vessels. The tanker was in the Strait of Hormuz—the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint—when it was taken, and could represent Iran’s own escalation in response to Western efforts to stop attacks on international trade ships led by the Yemeni Houthis.
  • South Africa formally accused Israel of genocide before the U.N.’s International Court of Justice on Thursday, claiming the current war in Gaza is the latest in a long history of Israeli oppression against Palestinians and calling for the court to enforce an immediate ceasefire. “The violence and the destruction in Palestine and Israel did not begin on the 7th of October 2023,” said South African Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola. “The Palestinians have experienced systematic oppression and violence for the last 76 years.” Israel is delivering its response before the court today, where it will deny the accusations while alleging the terrorist group Hamas has exacerbated casualty numbers by embedding itself among civilian populations. Israel complies with rules of war, “but it does so in the face of Hamas’ utter contempt for the law,” Tal Becker, legal adviser for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, argued in his opening remarks. U.S. officials have rejected international accusations that Israel is perpetrating genocide.
  • The Consumer Price Index rose 0.3 percent month-over-month and 3.4 percent annually in December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday, up slightly from 0.1 and 3.1 percent in November, respectively. December’s inflation figures came in above economists’ expectations, driven by an increase in shelter prices, though core inflation—a metric that strips out volatile food and energy prices—held steady at 0.3 percent month-over-month and decreased slightly to 3.9 percent annually.
  • Hunter Biden pleaded not guilty to nine tax charges in a federal court in California on Thursday, in a case that alleges the president’s son failed to pay at least $1.4 million in federal taxes between 2016 through 2019. The younger Biden faces a separate federal indictment on gun charges in Delaware, and his legal troubles and business conduct have increasingly become a focus of congressional Republicans in recent months.

Taiwan Heads to the Polls

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen joins hands with the presidential candidate of ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te during a campaign rally on January 11, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Sawayasu Tsuji/Getty Images)
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen joins hands with the presidential candidate of ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te during a campaign rally on January 11, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Sawayasu Tsuji/Getty Images)

Taiwan will hold the world’s first major election of 2024 tomorrow, as citizens select the next president and legislature of the island democracy. China’s influence has loomed large over the contest—literally. During a media briefing on Tuesday, in which Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu detailed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to interfere in the election, an emergency alert went out warning that China had launched a rocket into space over the south of Taiwan. The Chinese-language alert made clear the rocket was a satellite launch, but much to the alarm of the foreign journalists in the room, the English translation read: “[Air-Raid Alert] Missile flyover Taiwan airspace, be aware.”  

The incident highlighted the real-world consequences of heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait—something that will be top of mind as voters head to the polls tomorrow. The presidential election has featured tough rhetoric among the leading candidates, including claims that the fate of the island could hinge on the outcome. Such characterizations likely overstate the stakes of the race—the differences among the candidates are a matter of degree, not kind—but what may matter most for stability in the region is how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reacts to the results.

The presidential race has featured three top contenders: Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih, of the leading opposition party Kuomintang (KMT); and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, founder of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Securing between 32 and 40 percent in three recent polls, Lai is the slight favorite to win, but KMT’s Hou is not far behind. Ko is currently polling in third, but still registers double-digit support. The contest is notably closer than the 2020 election, when the current president and DPP leader, Tsai Ing-wen, secured her second term by a nearly 20-point margin.  

Lai and Hou have presented the sharpest contrasts in the race, with the former pushing for a strong stand against China and continuing Tsai’s defense buildup. “The pursuit of peace relies on strength, not the goodwill of the aggressor,” Lai said earlier this week. Hou has advocated a different approach: preserving peace and stability by prioritizing renewed diplomatic and economic contact with China—China broke off dialogue with Taiwan when Tsai was elected in 2016, citing her refusal to embrace the One China policy. “The most important job for Taiwan’s future leader,” Hou said in November, “is to play a key role in stabilizing cross-strait and regional peace.”

Ko—the odd man out in the race—has criticized the two dominant parties as pursuing “shallow ideological battles over unification or independence,” and offered an anti-establishment vision for the future. “Taiwan must embrace a strategy that is more pragmatic and rational,” Ko wrote in an essay published in the Economist on Sunday. “A ‘Third Way’ that leads the island beyond traditional partisanship and, instead, towards a future defined by astute, evidence-based policymaking.” Ko’s approach has proved popular among young people—the 64-year-old politician’s social media following is orders of magnitude larger than his opponents’.  

The TPP is more aligned with the KMT than the ruling DPP on how to handle China, with Ko calling for “more rational cross-strait exchanges.” The KMT and TPP even contemplated a unity bid last fall, but the proto-alliance fell apart in a spectacular and public fashion over which party leader would head the ticket. “I hate the Kuomintang, but I hate the Democratic Progressive Party even more,” Ko said in November. While he isn’t expected to win the presidency, if neither the KMT nor DPP secures a majority of seats in the legislature, Ko’s party could play a key role in the governing coalition. 

The DPP and KMT candidates have both predicted cataclysmic consequences should the other side win the election. “Your sacred ballot will decide not only the future of Taiwan but the fate of the world,” Lai said at a campaign event on Sunday. 

Hou’s running mate, Jaw Shaw-kong, made the contrast even more stark. “What road are they taking? The road to war,” he said of the DPP last weekend. “The road that leads Taiwan into danger, the road that leads to uncertainty.” 

Some analysts see that rhetoric as mainly political posturing. “The candidates have tried to frame the race in pretty dire or existential terms,” David Sacks, a fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told TMD. “For the KMT, it’s a choice between war and peace. For the DPP, and it’s about whether Taiwan was going to be able to preserve its democracy and autonomy or be subjugated to China.” But in essence, he noted, “everybody wants to maintain the status quo.” 

Both Lai and Hou have tempered their statements on relations with China over the course of the campaign, with Lai promising to not provoke the CCP by pursuing de jure independence and Hou pledging to preserve the country’s freedom. In 2017, Lai described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,” but throughout the campaign he has emphasized his commitment to maintaining President Tsai’s position that Taiwan is already functionally independent, so a formal declaration is unnecessary. “My responsibility is to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” Lai said this summer, “while protecting Taiwan and maintaining democracy, peace, and prosperity.”

Hou opposes both China’s interpretation of the One China policy as “one country, two systems” and the push for formal Taiwanese independence—yet he’s made clear that, aside from pursuing dialogue with China, he doesn’t intend to make any sweeping changes to Taiwan’s position on the mainland.* “Within my term in office, I will not touch the issue of unification,” Hou vowed this week. “In cross-strait relations, you cannot just rely on one side,” he added, promising to bolster the island’s defenses. With varying degrees of emphasis, all of the candidates have said they’ll continue to strengthen relations with the U.S. and regional allies like Japan. (For more details on the differences and similarities between the candidates’ domestic policy positions, be sure to check out this recent Dispatch explainer on the site.)  

The candidates’ similarities aren’t surprising given voters’ views on unification and independence. According to National Chengchi University’s long-running poll on independence and unification, 32 percent of Taiwanese people support maintaining the status quo “indefinitely,” 29 percent favor maintaining the status quo and deciding the question of unification or independence at a later date, and 21 percent favor maintaining the status quo but moving toward independence. Very few people support either independence as soon as possible (4.5 percent) or unification as soon as possible (1.6 percent). Such a strong consensus on the direction of cross-strait policy prevents any candidate who wants to remain viable from straying too far.

But the CCP isn’t so intent on maintaining the status quo. Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the overriding goal of taking back full control of Taiwan in his New Year’s address, describing reunification as “a historical inevitability.” The remarks echoed comments Xi reportedly made during his meeting with President Joe Biden at a San Francisco summit in November—the CCP has both refused to swear off a violent takeover of Taiwan and signaled China would intervene militarily should Taiwan ever declare independence.  

Lai’s 2017 comments on independence have made him persona non grata to the CCP, and China has tried to exert as much pressure on the election as possible in an effort to tank the frontrunner’s candidacy. “Mr. Lai’s support for ‘the cross-strait status quo’ is actually for so-called ‘peaceful separation’ and ‘one China, one Taiwan,’” a spokesperson for China’s embassy in the U.S. wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal last summer, responding to a July op-ed by Lai on preserving peace. On Thursday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office put out a statement urging voters to make the “right choice” in the election. “We sincerely hope that the majority of Taiwan compatriots will recognise the extreme danger of the DPP’s ‘Taiwan independence’ line and the extreme danger that Lai Ching-te will trigger cross-strait confrontation and conflict, that they will make the right choice at this crossroads of cross-strait relations,” the office said.

The Chinese military has also escalated its campaign of aggressive aerial and naval maneuvers directed at Taiwan in recent months, repeatedly crossing the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait and venturing into the island’s air defense identification zone. Chinese balloons have floated over the island close to Taiwanese military installations, and CCP operatives have tried to inundate Taiwan with digital misinformation about the election. “The most flagrant, and yet not at all surprising, abuses are conducted by PRC surrogates in Taiwan who set up fake organizations and fake news websites, conduct fake polls and use thousands of fake social media accounts to manipulate public debate and opinion,” Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said earlier this month. “Taking advantage of Taiwan’s openness, China has flooded Taiwan with disinformation and stepped up its cyber-warfare activities to try to dupe the Taiwanese people into accepting its narrative. Its plan is to win over a critical minority of swing voters.”

The CCP has also leveraged its economic ties with Taiwan in an effort to influence the election. In a move that Taiwanese officials have labeled economic coercion, China suspended tariff concessions on importing chemical compounds from Taiwan, alleging the island had “adopted discriminator bans” and other restrictions on Chinese products in violation of their trade agreement. The Chinese commerce ministry threatened further tariff suspensions this week.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, Beijing has targeted one of Taiwan’s biggest rock bands, Mayday, opening an official investigation into allegations of lip-syncing at concerts in Shanghai. 

Even in the face of China’s harassment, millions of people will exercise their democratic rights tomorrow—75 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2020 election. “Taiwan, as a democracy, should really be commended,” Sacks said. “It’s one of the region’s strongest democracies, one of the world’s strongest democracies, and this is a place that held its first presidential election only in 1996.”

Worth Your Time 

  • Ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reconsideration of Chevron v. NRDC next week, former Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia—son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia—reflects on how the original ruling, which instructed judges to defer to certain agencies the interpretations of statutes they administer, wound up so muddled. “Some agency heads not only don’t interpret; at times they’re indifferent to—even contemptuous of—the right legal answer,” Scalia wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Many agency heads aren’t lawyers, and countless factors influence their decisions: the president’s goals, the forcefully stated views of a budget committee chairman, even anxiety about what the media will say and how that might affect the agency head’s prospects for some future job he’s eyeing. … The decider might say to his lawyers: ‘I hear you about legal risk. But I’m going to do what’s right. After all, it’s possible no one will sue over this rule. And if they do, I might win—you just admitted you can’t be 100% sure what the courts will say. And if I lose, then it’s on the judges. Everyone will know I did the right thing.’”
  • With Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots parting ways yesterday, take a few minutes to read this 2009 profile of perhaps the greatest head coach in NFL history—and how he got there. “Belichick does not believe he is a genius, as he’s been labeled,” Seth Wickersham wrote for ESPN. “He does not think smart play-calling is about schematic wizardry. Rather, it’s about precision and mitigating risk. And so he provides his coaches with 10 plays for every possible game situation. And for all the gaudy numbers those plays have produced, he’s kept the Patriots’ playbook relatively simple. One ex-Pat who still has his New England playbook flipped through it recently, looking for a significant difference between it and others he’s studied around the NFL. ‘I’d need a few days,’ he said. The Patriots don’t run a slant differently from anyone else, he says. They just run it at the right time.”

Presented Without Comment

ABC News: President Joe Biden’s Record Age, 81, is an ‘Asset,’ First Lady Jill Biden Says

Also Presented Without Comment

Donald Trump, asked by a reporter at a press conference yesterday if he agreed with his legal team that he could not be prosecuted if he ordered Seal Team 6 to kill a political opponent:

“Any president has to have immunity.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew reviewed a very busy day on the campaign trail, Michael and Sarah discussed the sticky issue of presidential immunity, and Nick weighed (🔒) the three doomed approaches to Trump’s dominance that were on display on Wednesday.
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and Steve bid farewell (🔒) to Gov. Chris Christie on an episode of High Steaks
  • On the site: John interviews Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats about Trump’s damage to the pro-life cause and Carl Graham explains the danger posed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s undisclosed absence this month. 

Let Us Know

Do you agree with a Dispatch commenter’s assessment yesterday, that Taiwan’s is the “the second most important election of 2024?”

Clarification, January 12, 2024: Reworded to make clear that Hou opposes the push for formal Taiwanese independence.

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.