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Taiwan Polls 2024: Amid Cross-Strait Jigsaw, the Impact of US-China Tensions

Neither will China budge in its assertiveness, and nor will the US, in its defence support to Taiwan.

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Amidst a host of elections around the world in 2024, the island of Taiwan is all geared up for its own presidential election and for members of its parliament, the legislative yuan. As the popular vote takes place today, on 13 January, it has – Lai Ching-Te, the current Vice-President of Taiwan and the candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih, incumbent mayor of New Taipei and candidate of the Kuomintang Party (KMT), and Ko Wen-Je, former mayor of Taipei and candidate of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) as contenders.

They respectively have joint tickets with vice-presidential candidates Hsiao Bi-Khim (Taiwanese representative to the US), Jaw Shaw-Kong (President of Broadcasting Corporation of China), and Cynthia Wu (current member of legislative yuan).

So far, domestic Taiwanese polls such as those released by My Formosa opinion polls (the latest being the 101st poll from 31 December 2023) and the TVBS poll center just a few days ago, show a lead for Lai Ching-Te’s presidential campaign, and Hou’s campaign is close behind. Another poll by Mirror News still shows Lai in the lead, but Ko and not Hou as trailing behind at number 2 (by about 0.10 percentage points).

However, the possibility that the DPP wins a majority in the legislative yuan seems bleak, considering that the DPP would need to win more than 56 out of 113 seats, and in the previous two elections, their majority had already reduced from 68 to 61 seats.
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Moreover, analysts suggest that either parliament would be hung based on declining confidence in the DPP, with the fate of the majority in the hands of the TPP and who Ko decides to support, or the KMT will win a majority. Ko has ideologically leaned towards Hou, and even though the joint KMT-TPP ticket proposed in November failed, Ko’s support to the KMT in the scenario of a hung parliament may significantly strengthen the Opposition numbers against the DPP.

This wouldn’t however indicate that the Opposition itself will be united and aligned on issues important both domestically and in cross-straits relations, especially considering that during the joint-ticket debacle, TPP positioned itself as an independent party free of the KMT’s historical baggage.

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Cross-Straits Relations: The Elephant at the Polling Booth

From the presidential debate that took place on 30 December 2023, it was evident that the key factor of deliberation for all the three candidates were cross-strait relations and mainland China policies of the parties. Lai, in particular, was attacked by both Hou and Ko for referring to himself as a "pragmatic Taiwan independence worker,” which the latter perceived as a sign that Lai would create more room for insecurity and tensions in cross-straits relations.

Lai’s key arguments during the debate revolved around maintaining the status quo but also strengthening the island's defence capabilities and improving weapons acquisition. Lai also defended the DPP’s December 2022 decision to extend mandatory conscription services for young Taiwanese men from four months to a year starting January 2024.

While answering a question on how Taiwan will make space for itself in the tense relationship between the US and China, Lai also argued that he will continue on the path laid down by President Tsai Ing-Wen to create more diplomatic space for Taiwan. He was, of course, also criticised for the fact that under Tsai’s government, Taiwan lost 9 diplomatic allies.

Overall, Lai’s approach to China reflected a sense of confidence, a desire for unity and parity in all dialogue with China, and a will to enhance the very elements China condemns – Taiwan’s democratic institutions, defence capabilities, and diplomatic relations.

These can be considered the '3Ds’ of Lai and DPP’s foreign policy – also reflective of the DPP’s long-term cross-straits policy.

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The 3D’s of Taiwanese Foreign Policy

In the previous two tenures of the DPP, calls for the expression of Taiwanese sovereignty, the development of an independent Taiwanese identity, and the proximity with the US vis-a-vis the development of defence capabilities have dominated the narrative.

But at the same time, Tsai has also managed differences within the pan-Green faction of Taiwanese politics well (ie, between those that are hardcore independence enthusiasts and those who wish to strengthen defence and diplomacy while maintaining the status quo).

If Lai wins, it is likely that Tsai’s overall policy approach will prevail, but the challenge could be that amidst the shifting currents of geopolitics, sentiments of independence and identity strengthen.
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As for Hou, he articulated KMT’s own ‘three Ds’ of cross-strait relations:

  • Deterrence,

  • Dialogue,

  • and De-escalation.

On Deterrence, the KMT’s agenda is to continue investing in Taiwan’s defence capabilities so that, in Hou’s words, China will "not dare” to invade the island. During the presidential debate, Hou also critiqued Lai’s statement that KMT was a "pro-China party”, which would imply that the party does not care for Taiwan’s sovereignty and defence.

At the same time, Hou and the KMT have emphasised repeatedly that the best way to steer the status quo is to enhance dialogue, continue cross-strait economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges (including through the establishment of more direct flights), and balance the relationship with the US.

They have also attacked the decision to expand the conscription period, and Hou had promised back in July 2023 that if he wins, the decision would be reversed.
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His rationale behind this was his confidence that under his presidency, there would be no need for a longer conscription as cross-strait relations would be less tense. Overall, the KMT has framed this election as a “choice between war and peace,” and the Chinese seem to agree.

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China’s Response and Interference Measures

An election in Taiwan is incomplete without backlash from China and tactics for influencing and interfering with public opinion. Lai, for example, has received intense criticism from the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the Chinese State Council for being a "trouble-maker,” a "secessionist,” and an individual with a "confrontational mindset.” China has also sanctioned Hsiao Bi-Khim, Lai’s running mate, and her family members, for a second time in April 2023, right after Tsai’s stopover in the US on her trip to Guatemala and her meeting with the then-US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

China has also criticised the Tsai administration’s crackdown on local neighbourhood chiefs who visited China in the past few months as "Green terror” of the DPP. Since June 2023, some 41 local KMT leaders, their family members, and other high-ranking KMT officials such as Vice-Chairman Andrew Hsia have visited China for business-related trips.

Under the 'Anti-Infiltration Law’, and for obvious political reasons, the Tsai administration has investigated their trips to prevent election interference from China. And, according to TAO Spokesperson Chen Binhua, this practice accounts for the intimidation of the grassroots to cut off any meaningful people-to-people ties with the People’s Republic.
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Aside from the playing up of such narratives, China has engaged in both military and economic coercion. Just three weeks ago, for example, the Chinese State Council Customs Tariff Commission decided to suspend preferential tax rates for Taiwanese chemical imports into the country as granted under the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).

Chen has referred to this measure as being "reasonable, legal, and evidence-based, constituting normal economic conduct.” He contends that it is so because since the DPP came to power in 2016, it has refused to acknowledge the ‘1992 consensus’ and has continued to emphasise 'Taiwan’s independence’, both of which are in violation of the fundamental principles underpinning the ECFA.

It must be noted that from the Chinese perspective, when the negotiations for the ECFA and its implementation were underway in the 2010-2011 period, China had made amply clear to Taiwan that any economic cooperation between the two sides (under the ECFA or say, the Cross-Strait Economic, Trade, and Cultural Forum) will have to be built on the political foundation of mutual trust, mutual agreement to acknowledge the ‘1992 consensus’, and mutual opposition to Taiwan’s independence.
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Moreover, China found an opportunity to pressurise the US-Taiwan relations by sanctioning five American firms for selling arms to Taiwan. In mid-December last year, the US Department of Defense sanctioned the sale of tactical military information equipment to Taiwan, worth USD 3 million.

In response, under the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law of the People's Republic, China has decided to impose sanctions on firms like BAE Systems Land and Armament, Alliant Techsystems Operations, AeroVironment, ViaSat, and Data Link Solutions.

On the military front, China’s 'balloons’ are now flying beyond the median line of Taiwan’s Air-Defense Identification Zone, in addition to the previously observed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and fighter jets. If Lai wins the elections, it is likely China may also amp up the coercion efforts by performing live-fire exercises around Taiwan as it has done so twice since the Pelosi visit to Taipei in August 2022.

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Between War and Peace

All stakeholders of the critical cross-straits relations will be watching the Taiwan polls intently.

The fact of the matter is that neither will China budge in its assertiveness, and nor will the US, in its defence support to Taiwan
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In this light, whether this election is a choice between war and peace depends solely on the ability of the winning party and candidate to steer the status quo and manage internal political sentiments on either extreme of the independence-unification spectrum, while retaining Taiwan’s democratic and social identity as well as its diplomatic space.

And so, this delicate choice is incumbent upon the island’s 19 million-strong electorate to make.

(Anushka Saxena is a China Studies Research Analyst with the Takshashila Institution. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  geopolitics   United States    China 

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