Taiwan Votes

How to reconcile Taiwan’s increasingly independent identity with China’s promised reunification? 

That’s the question ahead of Saturday’s presidential election. William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the narrow frontrunner. He hopes to win a third term for the DPP with President Tsai Ing-wen ineligible to run again. Lai is up against Hou You-ih of the traditionally more pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) and outsider Ko Wen-je of the new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). 


Another DPP victory will likely see aggressive Chinese manoeuvres. Expect military displays around the Taiwan Strait and economic measures. Belligerent rhetoric will heighten though actions will stop short of an invasion or economic blockade

A KMT victory will provide some respite. Xi Jinping can tone down the CCP’s wolf warrior diplomacy and present it as a check on the breakaway province. 

But neither scenario changes the fragility of the status quo. The overton window has shifted considerably in Taiwan. 63 percent of adults now identify solely as Taiwanese and just 6 percent support reunification. Voters may choose a less provocative party but “peaceful reunification” remains fundamentally unrealistic. Longer term, the CCP will have to dramatically shift policy or take the island by force. 


China wants the DPP out. Lai is viewed as more dangerous than his predecessor, having previously described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” In a recent interview with Bloomberg, he qualified his hope for Chinese friendship with a desire to see “democracy and freedom” on the mainland. His running mate Hsiao Bi-khim is the subject of even greater suspicion. As Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, she was barred from entering China following Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 Taiwan visit. 

Recent Chinese rhetoric and actions are a warning that it does not want this pair in power. Xi recently called Taiwan’s unification with China “a historical inevitability”. And China has reimposed tariffs on Taiwanese petrochemical products, citing the DPP’s failure to uphold trade commitments. China may withdraw altogether from their ECFA trade agreement if the DPP wins.

Beyond its perceived radical leadership, China is also acutely aware that the DPP is a Taiwanese creation. It is popular amongst the small indigenous Austronesian population and pre-civil war Chinese immigrants. These groups do not just define Taiwan by its relationship with its maritime neighbour. Tsai Ing-wen united these groups and descendants of Chinese nationalists under a hybrid identity, often referring to the country as the “Republic of China Taiwan”. 


This is concerning for the mainland. The KMT were the Communists’ opponents but at least they maintained a Chinese identity. In theory, they agree that mainland China and Taiwan are “one China”, though disagree on the sovereignty of that jurisdiction. It’s some common ground for engagement. 

China’s political class therefore wants a KMT victory. But joy will be short-lived. Former US diplomat and CFR president Richard Haass recently commented that “the gap between the DPP and KMT has shrunk” and that he is “much more struck by the similarities than the differences.”  

The KMT calls for a more diplomatic approach to China relations. James Crabtree reports that KMT “candidates accuse their DPP opponents of seeking a dangerous conflict with China.” But behind this softer language, its foreign policy looks very similar. Hou emphasises deterrence, stating, “Taiwan’s most important priority should be to strengthen its national defence and deter the use of force by mainland China.” He also calls for stronger relations with the US and regional Western ally Japan. 


Polling suggests the KMT has closed the gap considerably on the DPP since Tsai ing-Wen’s landslide victory in 2020. Leadership changes and Lai’s more wooden persona are contributing factors. So are domestic concerns. Crabtree points out that “Taiwan-China ties are not the only issue on the ballot in an election where many disaffected young people have turned against the DPP, which after 8 years in power is viewed as an establishment party unable to fix quality-of-life issues, like jobs and rising prices.” 

Taiwan’s economy fell into recession earlier this year, shrinking at the fastest pace since the financial crisis. Former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je emerged as a surprise third candidate because he focused on these issues. On this week’s Drum Tower, Alice Su reports that his campaign calls for an end to “bickering” about Chinese or Taiwanese identities. Ko’s message is that “nobody is solving our domestic crises like housing and low wages.” 


That domestic issues hold such sway is a sign of Taiwanese confidence in their own democracy and sovereignty. Reunification is so unpopular that there is no prospect of any party starting down that path. However, voters may want a less combative approach that grants some reprieve from constant international glare. 88 percent of the population favours the status quo of paying lip service to Beijing. Some fear that DPP provocations could upset the prosperity and freedom currently enjoyed. 

These worries are fed by insecurity over US commitment to the territory. 1979 seeded a betrayal narrative when the US eschewed Taiwan to formalise diplomatic relations with China. Waning US financial commitment to Ukraine has not helped. Only 34 percent of Taiwanese now believe the US is a trustworthy country, down from 45 percent just 2 years ago. 


The Biden administration would also enjoy the relative quiet of a KMT win. Chinese sabre rattling is an unwelcome election year distraction. Yet this will only kick the can down the road. The Chinese leadership is committed to re-unification while the Taiwanese people increasingly reject any sense of political affiliation. Saturday’s election may buy time but it offers no resolution. Either China reneges on its 75-year commitment to “liberate Taiwan” or that US loyalty will soon be tested. 



One Comment

  1. PM

    Informative and well put together – thanks for sharing

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