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Impact of the Taiwanese Elections on the Taipei-Beijing-Washington Triangle

Feb 26, 2024

Lai Ching-te’s victory during last month’s presidential election in Taiwan was no surprise. The polls indicated his probable triumph weeks in advance. The parliamentary vote for the Legislative Yuan was less predictable. The ballot saw substantial split-ticket voting, with people casting ballots for presidential and legislative candidates from different parties. Thus far, the election has not appreciably impacted cross-Strait or Sino-American relations. But this pause may not endure long. 

Lai garnered slightly over 40% of the more than 14 million votes cast on January 13, during Taiwan’s eighth democratic presidential election. Though Taiwan lacks procedures for a presidential run-off, the result was the first time since the 2000 election that a candidate won less than a majority. Despite this weaker mandate for the next four years, Lai’s victory represented the first time the same party won the presidency three elections in a row. It was also the first time in Taiwan’s democratic history that an incumbent Vice President succeeded a President of the same party. Lai’s main opponent, Hou Yu-ih of the previously dominant Kuomintang (KMT) party, received 33.49% of the votes, while Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), came in a solid third, with 26.46%, thanks to many young peoples’ desires for a new course, or at least a new face. 

The parliamentary vote offered a stark contrast. The DPP lost 10 seats—and their thin majority—in the Legislative Yuan. This will be the first time in many years that a presidential administration lacks a parliamentary majority. The KMT edged out the DPP, winning 52 seats versus 51 for the DPP. Due to Taiwan’s proportional representation system, the TPP secured eight seats without winning any single-member constituencies. Nonetheless, the TPP is now in a swing position between the KMT and DPP. Taiwan has a semi-presidential system, but the Legislative Yuan must approve general defense expenditures, the duration of military conscription, and arms purchases from the United States (which require special budgets). 

The KMT’s third presidential defeat in a row may accelerate the replacement of the party’s ruling old guard, who are favorably inclined toward partnership with China, with a younger generation of new thinkers. However, the party’s presidential candidate did better than in 2016 and 2020, while its legislative candidates won the most seats in 2024. Furthermore, party elders may blame the failure of the TPP to withdraw its candidate as the main reason they lost the presidential ballot since the combined KMT-TPP vote far exceeded that of the DPP. Meanwhile, the TPP will differentiate itself from the KMT (and the DPP) to sustain broad support. Though Ko won more votes than any previous third-party candidate, the durability of his party is questionable, as it comprises a coalition of leaders, including in the Legislative Yuan, holding diverse views. 

Rising health and housing costs, environmental challenges, gender questions, and other domestic issues weighed heavily on the voters. The parties’ platforms did not differ much on relations with China, the United States, or other foreign policy issues. All three supported increasing defense spending and sustaining good ties with the United States. Their presidential candidates all said they wanted to maintain the status quo with China (neither near-term unification nor independence) but contested who could do that best. The ruling DPP doubled down on its calls for deterrence, dialogue, de-escalation, and diversification. Hou sought to differentiate himself from the last KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou, who now advocates comprehensive reconciliation with Beijing based on mutual trust to avert a ruinous war. Hou even hesitated to reaffirm the so-called 1992 Consensus, which now lacks broad public support on the island. 

For its part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry downplayed the elections, characterizing them as a provincial ballot that won’t change the fact that Taiwan is part of the one China. Beijing perfunctory castigated governments that congratulated Lai or sent quasi-official delegations to meet him. Some governments, such as those of Russia and Iran, tried to gain favor with Beijing by reaffirming their commitment to the PRC-backed “One China” principle. 

Observers have speculated about the reasons for the relatively quiescent Chinese response to the elections: the approaching New Year’s holiday, the lengthy time before Lai assumes office in May, the decline in support for the DPP, a desire not to spook foreign investors further, and a concern not to derail the recent modest upswing in Sino-American ties exemplified by the "San Francisco Vision,” following the recent Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of last November’s APEC conference. 

Support for Taiwan enjoys rare bipartisan consensus in Washington, where Taiwan is well-respected for its democracy, prosperity, and strategic importance. The Biden administration continues adhering to the three Joint Communiques, the Six Assurances, and the Taiwan Relations Act. Washington maintains only unofficial economic, cultural, and defense ties with Taiwan and, seeking to avoid a Ukraine-type scenario in East Asia, does not want either side unilaterally changing the status quo. 

Still, Chinese diplomats adeptly prepared the battlefield by prearranging the well-timed defection of the Pacific Island nation of Nauru, whose government on January 15 (e.g., two days after Taiwan’s election) switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The change has left only a dozen countries whose governments still recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) rather than the People’s Republic of China (Beijing). 

Beijing will likely await indications whether Lai has genuinely moved away from his youthful “deep green” inclinations favoring Taiwanese independence. Much depends on how long the PRC leadership believes peaceful reunification remains on the table. Saying that reunification is an inevitable trend of history gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) substantial operational flexibility, obviating the necessity of active military intervention but not excluding it. The debate regarding when (if) the Chinese military will switch its focus from deterring Taiwanese independence compelling cross-Strait integration will continue in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington. The CCP may be content to wait another four years to see who wins the elections in 2028, while assessing the policies of the United States and other international developments. 

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