Taiwan prepares for elections marked by US-China geopolitical struggle

Beijing, which has called the frontrunner a ‘troublemaker,’ says that this Saturday’s presidential election is a decision between ‘war and peace’

Taiwan Nationalist Party presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih waves to supporters from a motorcade as he tours a neighborhood in Taipei, Taiwan, on Tuesday.Associated Press/LaPresse (Associated Press/LaPresse)
Guillermo Abril

This crucial year of global elections, where almost half the planet will head to the polls — from India and the United States to Europe — begins with what may be the most decisive election day for the rest of the world. Taiwan, the self-governed and democratic island that China considers an inalienable part of its territory and that counts on the United States as a key ally, is holding presidential and legislative elections on Saturday.

It’s not just an important vote internally. In Taiwan, they never are. This election is marked by the political tensions between China and the U.S., and it could have a seismic geopolitical impact on the world. In Beijing’s eyes, Taiwanese voters are facing a choice between “war and peace.” The result of the election and its aftermath will be the first test of the rapprochement struck between the U.S. and China following President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s meeting in November.

Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, was leading in the last opinion polls recorded on January 3 (Taiwan does not allow polls to be published in the last 10 days of the campaign). He is the presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is China’s least preferred option. In second place was Hou Yu-ih, the mayor of New Taipei — the most populated city in the country, which surrounds the capital, Taipei — who is from the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, which has traditionally advocated for greater rapprochement with Beijing.

In the three-way presidential race, the third contender is Ko Wen-je, from the Taiwan People’s Party, which was formed in 2019. Ko — a former doctor who was the mayor of Taipei until 2022 — has risen in the polls thanks to support from young voters, who are tired of the two traditional parties and have been won over by his talks on solving day-to-day problems, such as the high cost of housing.

Lai’s lead in the race was only briefly threatened when the opposition parties tried to reach an agreement to present a single candidate — an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful. In the legislative race, however, the KMT has been leading the polls.

Lai is promising to continue the policies developed by Taiwan’s outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, who is also from the DPP. Due to legal term limits, Tsai cannot run again, and is stepping down after eight years in power. Her administration has been marked by lack of communication with China, growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and rapprochement with Washington. Lai argues he is the best person to guarantee “stability” in Taiwan and maintain the current status quo. He is also pledging to further advance social rights, such as same-sex marriage, approved in 2019 under Tsai’s mandate.

“Peace is priceless and war has no winners,” Lai said on Tuesday during an appearance before the international press. The presidential candidate praised the strength of Taiwan’s democracy, adding: “While aspiring for peace, we harbor no illusions.” To maintain stability in Taiwan — where the Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked fears the island may face a similar fate — Lai proposed to “build up Taiwan’s defense deterrence.” This is in line with the policy of the current government, which has sought closer military cooperation with the U.S. “We stand at the forefront of defending our values against authoritarianism,” said Lai. “We have no plan” to declare Taiwanese independence, he added, because “the Republic of China, Taiwan, is already an independent sovereign nation.”

Beijing — which sees Taiwan as a rebellious province that it intends to reincorporate peacefully, although it has not ruled out using force — argues that Lai has secret plans for independence, which harm the population of Taiwan and “jeopardizes” peace in the Strait. “In order to get more votes, Lai tries to hide the fact that, as a supporter of Taiwan independence, he is essentially a troublemaker and instigator of war,” Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said in November according to China’s state press.

Beijing's favorite

Beijing’s preferred candidate is Hou Yu-ih, of the KMT, the heir to the faction that fled China in 1949 after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists in the Chinese civil war. The defeated faction settled on the island of Taiwan, where they founded a kind of government in exile, under the leadership of KMT leader, the dictator Chiang Kai-shek. They called it the Republic of China, thus giving rise to one of the world’s most complex and volatile geopolitical conflicts, a holdover from the Cold War that continues to this day.

Hou is calling for an end to the DPP, which he accuses of corruption. The KMT leader argues that the DPP is using an “internet army” and its control of local media to attack him and his party for maintaining closer ties with China, as he proclaimed at a rally Sunday in the city of Kaohsiung. Hou often recalls his career as a policeman to explain that he understands the importance of negotiation, while also having a backup force. He sums up his China policy in three words: “Deterrence, dialogue, de-escalation.”

Since the first free elections in Taiwan in 1996, KMT candidates have won the presidency three times, while the DPP have won four elections. The party has only governed nine of the past 24 years. The last KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) participated in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in 2015. But Ma’s closer relationship with China — the world’s second-biggest economic power — led to his defeat in the 2016 presidential election. That vote was won by Tsai Ing-wen, who has never met face to face with Xi.

International tension and internal calm

The atmosphere in Taiwan is a strange mix of international tension and everyday calm: the island has lived with the threat of China for more than seven decades. At a bustling night market, sitting in front of a steaming plate of noodles fresh from one of the stalls, Kai Chang, 29, and Monica Pan, 27, said Tuesday that they will vote for Ko Wen-je. “I see him working hard to solve young people’s problems, such as renting homes.” They complain about the very high cost of rent, which is barely covered by salaries, and the impossibility of buying a home. And they believe that Ko is backed by his years as mayor of the capital.

“He has a more practical and scientific approach than the other two candidates,” say the couple. “In part, I will vote for him because I am tired of there only being two parties. I would like a change,” adds Kai. They also believe that the elections will decide Taiwan’s approach to China. The couple believes that Ko’s position is a good midway point between the KMT and the DPP, arguing he wants Taiwan to remain “independent,” but is “willing to communicate” with Beijing.

Meanwhile, there is mounting pressure on Taiwan. Chinese balloons have been flying through the skies near the island and directly over the territory. The Taiwanese Defense Ministry called it “an attempt to use cognitive warfare to affect the morale of our people.” Chinese fighter jets have also been flying past the so-called median line that marks the unofficial division in the Taiwan Strait. A record was broken in September, with 103 Chinese aircraft detected in 24 hours.

This is a reminder that there is much more at stake in these elections than the future of the Taiwanese government. In recent years, with Tsai as president, the Strait has witnessed moments of great tension, especially after Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, decided to visit Taipei in August 2021. The Chinese Government considered her visit to the island an affront, carried out large-scale military exercises around Taiwan, and broke ties with Washington in various fields — including in military communication. Those fractures have not yet fully healed.

During the recent meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco, the Chinese leader said that the Taiwan question remains “the most important and most sensitive issue” in U.S.-China relations. He called on Biden to refrain from supporting Taiwan’s independence, to stop providing arms to the island and to support the “peaceful reunification of China.” In his traditional year-end speech on December 31, Xi reiterated: “Without a doubt, our motherland will realize reunification.” This Saturday’s election is an opportunity to observe, on a small scale, how the most tense geopolitical dispute of the 21st century could unfold in the coming years.

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