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What to Watch After Taiwan Elections

Jan 29, 2024
  • Shao Yuqun

    Director, Institute for Taiwan, HK and Macau Studies, SIIS

watching Taiwan.jpg

Three things are happening simultaneously in 2024. The free-fall of China-U.S. relations has been arrested, and things are stabilizing; the two countries have restored military communications and started negotiations to renew their Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement; and they have made initial progress on the fentanyl issue, according to the Biden administration.

Also, former U.S. president Donald Trump is making a strong comeback, with a victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses, while President Joe Biden is polling behind him in a number of battleground states.

Meanwhile, Taiwan recently held elections for leadership and legislative seats. The Democratic Progressive Party won the leadership vote but lost the majority in the legislature. Hou Yu-ih lost the election, but his Kuomintang won the most legislative seats. Ko Wen-je conceded defeat but got more votes than expected, so his Taiwan People’s Party has suddenly become the swing vote in the legislature.

Against this backdrop, the United States will focus on four aspects in its Taiwan policy in the near future:

First, it will continue its “dual deterrence” approach. Right after the elections, the U.S. government sent a delegation composed of former senior national security officials to Taiwan. They were accompanied by Laura Rosenberger, the current chair of the American Institute in Taiwan. The trip conveyed a clear warning to the election’s top winner, Lai Ching-te — in whom Washington has little trust — not to provoke Beijing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that if the Taiwan Strait trade route were to be disrupted, it would affect the entire planet.

After former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, Beijing immediately made military moves that were labeled by the Biden administration as “sabotaging the stability of the Taiwan Strait” and “affecting the world economy.” The U.S. had a similar reaction to the election, attaching labels and whipping up public opinion to “deter” the mainland from “overreacting” to the results.

Second, the U.S. can be expected to exert more influence on Ko Wen-je and the TPP. The elections have, once again, demonstrated Ko’s attraction to Taiwan’s youth. As both the DPP and the KMT have a shrinking voter base, Ko’s future — along with that of the TPP — has been thrown into the spotlight. Washington is expected to follow closely how the TPP exerts influence in the legislature as the key minority and whether or not Ko will play a dominating role in monitoring the actions of the DPP and possibly expand his party’s influence. There is also the question of whether the TPP will avoid the “one-man party” bubble.

For a long time, the U.S. has been interfering in Taiwan’s internal politics by various means. The candidates of the three parties all went to the U.S. to attend “interviews” before the elections. Rosenberger also traveled to Taiwan multiple times to meet with them. On the whole, the U.S. government has an articulate understanding of Lai’s viewpoints and future policies, and also those of Hou, but it falls short when it comes to Ko’s propositions. Now that the ruling party has fewer seats than the opposition in Taiwan, Washington is bound to ramp up its influence on Ko and his party, which has become a crucial “swing vote” minority.

Third, the U.S. will continue enhancing its relationship with Taiwan out of a need to compete with China, regardless of the results of the region’s elections. In the realm of economy and technology, Washington will press ahead with the second negotiating round of the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade. The U.S. Congress will probably pass the proposal to eliminate the double taxation of workers from Taiwan and companies in the U.S. to provide “fair” opportunities for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and other companies from Taiwan. Further, Washington will press Taiwan to decouple from the Chinese mainland with respect to chip design, research and development.

When it comes to the issue of Taiwan’s international participation, Rosenberger claimed on Jan. 16, in response to Nauru severing so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan, that UN resolution 2758 “did not make a determination on the status of Taiwan, does not preclude countries from having diplomatic relationships with Taiwan and does not preclude Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system.” This is a flagrant affront to the consensus reached by the U.S. and China in their three Joint Communiques. If the Biden administration continues to deal with Taiwan’s “international participation” in line with such standards, China-U.S. relations will inevitably take a hit.

In addition, the U.S. will not stop arms sales, military training or aid to Taiwan. To beef up the so-called deterrence against Beijing, the U.S. is arming Taiwan to the teeth, which is extremely harmful. Although the Biden administration will probably make minor adjustments to relevant policy measures to stabilize ties with Beijing, there won’t be any fundamental constraints.

Fourth, the U.S. will reinforce its “democracy vs. autocracy” narrative. The Taiwan question concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is not at all an issue of ideology. While adopting a great power competition strategy on China, the U.S. government has purposely blurred the nature of the Taiwan question by seeking legitimacy for the Taiwan authorities with the current narrative.

This year is the biggest election year in U.S. history, with the most notable race being the one for president in early November. The U.S. is now immersed in a maelstrom of intense polarization. Despite being involved in countless lawsuits and criminal prosecutions, Trump continues to gain momentum. He enjoys a wide polling lead over Nikki Haley, the other Republican candidate, after Ron DeSantis withdrew from the race with a second-place finish in Iowa. The election is expected to shape up as a scenario in which the winner will be determined by the tens of thousands of voters in battleground states and the loser — Republican or Democrat — will question the legitimacy of the outcome and not accept it.

“The United States vs. Itself” is the year’s top risk,” according to the 2024 top risks report by Eurasia Group, a New York-based consulting firm. When American democracy itself is confronted with severe challenges, Taiwan’s regional election seems to inject a stimulant into Washington. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that the democracy vs. autocracy narrative is no longer popular around the world, including in Taiwan, because of democracy’s incapacity to solve existing problems. Moreover, democracy tends to foster aversion because the system itself creates new problems.

China and the U.S. share interests in the Taiwan Strait — that is, in its peace and stability. But that doesn’t mean Beijing, in pursuit of this goal, will ignore the U.S. as it continues to play the Taiwan card and provokes Beijing. As it turns out, China’s powerful countermeasures have played a role in deterring the United States. After Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, her successor Kevin McCarthy showed great restraint in his actions regarding Taiwan, and Congress has been more cautious in handling the Taiwan Policy Act.

Between now and Lai’s inauguration on May 20 or until the end of the year, the U.S., the DPP and Lai’s team must not make use of China’s willingness to seek peace and stability as a means of enhancing their relationship in quick, small steps in the name of following precedents, or even to create precedents. If they have such thinking, they are making a fundamental misjudgment of China’s willingness and capability to safeguard its core national interests. And they will destroy cross-strait peace. 

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