Taiwanese election may determine whether Beijing opts to force the issue of reunification
Independence on the ballot?
When the votes are being tallied in Taiwan’s presidential election, it won’t be only the 23.6 million inhabitants of the island eagerly awaiting a result—in Beijing and Washington, too, there will be some anxious faces.
The vote of Jan. 13, 2024, is seen as a litmus test for the future of cross-strait relations, coming at a time when the status quo over Taiwan – a territory Beijing claims as an integral part of “one China”—is being challenged. If Taiwan’s incumbent, independence-oriented party stays in power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping might feel he has no choice but to force the issue of reunification.
Conversely, if the opposition—which agrees with Beijing that Taiwan and the mainland are part of “one China” but not about who governs it—wins, Beijing might feel it has more space to be patient on the issue.
In the run-up to the vote, Beijing has ramped up military exercises in and around the Taiwan Strait in an apparent warning to Taiwanese voters. On Jan. 6, in one of the most recent incidents, China sent a series of balloons over the island, which the Taiwan government cited as a threat to air travel and an attempt at intimidation.
Meanwhile, in his annual New Year’s address, Xi stated that “China will surely be reunified,” raising fears internationally that he intends to pursue the issue militarily if necessary.
For Washington, too, the outcome of the vote will have implications. The United States has cultivated strong ties with the current leadership of Taiwan. But recent tensions in the strait have raised the risk of war. U.S. actions deemed provocative by Beijing, such as the 2022 visit of then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, have resulted in China upping its military threats in the strait. And this has raised speculation that China’s patience is growing thin and its timeline for reunification is growing shorter.
Meanwhile, questions about the U.S. capacity to respond to any Chinese aggression over Taiwan have risen; the specter of war in a third region of the world – after Ukraine and Israel—worries national security leadership in Washington.
The presidential election in Taiwan has come down to a three-way race. The front-runner is current Vice President William Lai,* who is the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party. The DPP views Taiwan as a sovereign country and does not seek reunification with China.
Lai’s challengers are New Taipei City mayor Hou Yu-ih, of the Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je, a former mayor of Taipei running for the center-left Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). The KMT embraces the idea of future reunification with China under a democratic government. The TPP criticizes both DPP and KMT platforms on cross-strait relations as too extreme and seeks a middle ground that maintains the status quo: A Taiwan that is de facto sovereign, but with strong economic and cultural ties with China.
Taiwan law mandates that no polls are published in the 10 days before the election. As of Jan. 3, when the final polls were published, averages had Lai leading with 36%, with Hou at 31% and Ko at 24%.
This may prove crucial, as joining forces may have represented the best chance of a KMT candidate being elected—an outcome that may have cooled tensions with Beijing.
The island of Taiwan has been governed as the “Republic of China” since 1949, when the KMT lost a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP set up the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, and the KMT retreated to Taiwan.
For decades, both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China diverged on every possible policy except one: Both governments agreed that there was only one China, and that Taiwan was a part of China. They each sought to unite Taiwan and the mainland—but under their own rule.
Although that remains the goal in Beijing today, for Taiwan the outlook has started to change.
The change began with Taiwanese democratization—a process that began in the early 1990s after decades of autocratic rule. After gradually rolling out direct elections for the legislature, governors and mayors, the island held its first democratic election for president in 1996. Despite Beijing holding military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to interfere with the vote, the KMT-affiliated incumbent won against a DPP candidate with strong ties to the Taiwan independence movement.
Four years later, the DPP’s candidate won and started the first of two consecutive terms. In 2008, a KMT candidate returned to power. But since 2016, Taiwan has been led by Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP.
Cross-strait tensions tend to rise when the DPP is in office and calm somewhat when the KMT is in power. This isn’t because the KMT agrees with Beijing over the status of Taiwan – the party has always been clear that unification could happen only under its own government and never under the leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing. But the KMT affirms the idea that eventual unification with China is its goal for Taiwan.
In 1992, representatives of the KMT and the CCP met in Hong Kong and reached the “1992 Consensus.” Despite the name, the two sides do not fully agree on what it meant. The KMT affirmed the idea of one China but noted disagreement on what the government of that China should be; the People’s Republic of China interpreted it as affirming one China under CCP rule.
Still, the 1992 Consensus became the basis of a series of policies strengthening cross-strait ties, and it made KMT-led governments easier for the PRC to tolerate.
Though speculation about the geopolitical fallout and China’s reaction to the election has dominated coverage of the vote around the world, for Taiwan voters, independence is one of several critical issues the island faces. The economy frequently rises even above cross-strait issues in importance, with many voters expressing concern over the rapid rise of housing prices, stagnating salaries, slow economic growth and how the incumbent party handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the issue of independence itself, Taiwanese polls have shown a creep toward pro-independence sentiment. As of September 2023, nearly half of Taiwanese voters said they preferred independence (48.9%) for the island, while 26.9% sought a continuation of the status quo. A shrinking minority—now just 11.8%—said they hoped for future reunification.
If the DPP remains in power, Beijing may feel the pressure to force the issue of reunification. Xi has called for the Chinese military to be capable of a successful cross-strait invasion by 2027, though a forceful reunification effort might include a combination of economic blockade and military pressure.
If that were to be the case, U.S. commitments to Taiwan – along with U.S. credibility among its Asian allies – could be on the line. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that he is prepared to defend the island militarily against an attack from mainland China.
Already in 2024, the U.S. is having to contend with two significant conflicts that are demanding its attention. How Taiwanese voters mark their ballot—and how policymakers in Beijing respond—may determine whether a third war is more or less likely.