Will Taiwan continue to distance itself from China?

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Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te speaks on stage at a rally, flanked by his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, following the victory in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan, January 13, 2024. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

William Lai Ching-te from the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won Taiwan’s presidential election, despite warnings from China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, not to vote for him.

Beijing remarked that the DPP does not align with the predominant public sentiment on the island after Lai secured the win in Saturday’s election. China additionally underlined that the election outcome “will not hinder the unavoidable trend of China’s reunification.”

The facts

Lai declared the voters had effectively thwarted attempts to sway the election, seemingly taking a dig at China. He stated, “the Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election.”

Lai has consistently underlined his dedication to peace and expressed a willingness for conditional engagement with Beijing, all while reinforcing Taiwan’s defences. Simultaneously, he pledged to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threat and intimidation from China.

DPP declared that voters’ support for the party showed Taiwan operates as a de facto sovereign nation. DPP advocated during the electoral campaign for bolstering defences against China’s threats and cultivating stronger connections with fellow democratic countries, even in the face of possible economic sanctions or military intimidation from Beijing. Also, the outcome represents another rejection of eight years of escalated coercive measures directed at Taiwan during Xi’s leadership.

The DPP emphasizes that Taiwan is not subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party, and that the future of Taiwan must only be decided by its 23 million people. Analysts say Lai’s win is a victory for the community of democracies and Taiwan is telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, they will stand on the side of democracy.

Analysts say that, probably, Lai’s stance against China will follow Tsai’s policies. Lai will act in accordance with Taiwan’s democratic and free constitutional order in a manner that is balanced and maintains the cross-strait status quo. At the same time, Lai will also safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China, hoping that, in the future, China will recognize the new situation, and understand that only peace benefits both sides of the strait.

This continuity is not likely to be well-received in Beijing. Several analysts anticipate that China may escalate economic and military pressure on Taiwan in the coming days or weeks to express its displeasure, or it might reserve a more forceful response for May, when Lai assumes office.

Lai’s victory occurs at a time when the United States is working to stabilize tense relations with China and prevent competition from escalating into conflict. During Tsai’s administration, Taiwan strengthened its ties with the United States, its principal international supporter, which increased support and arms sales to the island.

US officials have affirmed that Washington will maintain its longstanding policy toward Taiwan, irrespective of the elected leader. Following the election, the Biden administration plans to send an unofficial delegation, including former senior officials, to Taipei, a practice consistent with past diplomatic engagements.

The arguments

Taiwan, known as Republic of China (ROC), is an island situated across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China. Since 1949, it has functioned autonomously from mainland China, officially known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC considers Taiwan a rebellious province and asserts its commitment to eventual reunification with the mainland. In Taiwan, a nation with its own democratically elected government and a population of twenty-three million, political leaders hold varying perspectives on the island’s status and its relationship with mainland China.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait heightened following the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai has declined to endorse a formula supported by her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, which aimed at fostering increased cross-strait connections. In response, Beijing has adopted more assertive measures, including the deployment of fighter jets near the island.

Beijing asserts the concept of “One China,” stating that Taiwan is an integral part of it. It considers the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legitimate government of China, following the One China principle, and aims for the eventual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.

According to Beijing, Taiwan is bound by an understanding referred to as the 1992 Consensus, a supposed agreement between representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party in Taiwan. However, there is disagreement between the two sides regarding the content of this consensus, and its initial intent was not to address the issue of Taiwan’s legal status. President Xi Jinping of the PRC has stated that the 1992 Consensus signifies an agreement that “the two sides of the strait belong to one China and would work together to seek national reunification.” On the other hand, Taiwan interprets it as “one China, different interpretations,” with the Republic of China (ROC) representing the “one China.”

In a 2019 speech, Xi reiterated China’s long-standing proposal for Taiwan: that it be incorporated into the mainland under the formula of “one country, two systems.” This is the same formula used for Hong Kong and Macau, which guaranteed the ability to preserve their political and economic systems and granted a “high degree of autonomy.” Such a framework is deeply unpopular among the Taiwanese public. Pointing to Beijing’s recent crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms, many Taiwanese have rejected the “one country, two systems” framework.

Lai, the current vice president, participated in a three-way competition alongside Hou Yu-ih from the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je from the recently established Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), founded in 2019.

Hou acknowledged his defeat and extended congratulations to Lai, expressing regret to KMT supporters for being unable to displace the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Ko also conceded defeat.

In the victory speech, Lai expressed gratitude to the Taiwanese people for shaping a new chapter in democracy. He thanked his two opponents for conceding and underscored the message to the international community that Taiwan aligns with democracy over authoritarianism.

Lai further expressed his aspiration for a “healthy and orderly” resumption of exchanges with China, reiterating his commitment to discussions based on dignity and equality and not on subordination to China.

In response to Lai’s victory, Beijing affirmed that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan.” The statement underscored the unwavering stance of China on resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving national “reunification”. It reiterated China’s commitment to the One China principle and expressed strong opposition to any separatist endeavours for “Taiwan independence” and external interference in the matter.

In the run-up to the polls, China denounced Lai as a dangerous separatist, said he would be a threat to peace in the region if he won, and called the elections a choice between “peace and war”.


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