This Briefing analyses the post-election dynamics in China-Taiwan relations and how Taiwan should maintain a status-quo stance while staying vigilant. This piece was written by Matthew Reid and edited by Ruyi Liu.
2024 is one of the biggest election years in history, and it kicked off with the presidential elections in Taiwan. Incumbent Vice-President William Lai Ching-te, returned over 5.5 million ballots, about 40% of the vote, to secure election as the next president of Taiwan, ushering in an unprecedented historic third term for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) since the first direct presidential polling in 1996. Aligning closely with his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, the president-elect committed to maintain the status quo, neither introducing a formal declaration of independence that would be all-but-guaranteed to invite Chinese military invasion, nor reunifying with the Chinese mainland territory. Compared to his previous stance as a fervent advocate for Taiwanese independence until 2017, Lai now rejects secession and promotes peace to safeguard Taiwan from threats and intimidation from China’. Though Lai might see DPP victory as ‘a victory for the community of democracy’, the lack of DPP majority in the Taiwanese Parliament, the Legislative Yuan, demonstrates that he still has plenty of challenges ahead. Moreover, the 2024 turnout only tallied 71.9% according to official statistics, the second-lowest turnout since 1996, and the DPP share of the presidential vote dropped by over 17 points, illustrating weakened support since the last election cycle.
With the Kuomintang (KMT) now the majority party in the Yuan, Lai will need to moderate his policies to secure a coalition partner for legislative support. According to Timothy S. Rich, ‘the Taiwan People’s Party is in a great strategic position to make or break [his] legislative hopes’. A newly-emerged party, the TPP secured over 26% of the vote, drawing support from Taiwanese youths who became disillusioned with the economic mismanagement of the DPP, particularly regarding escalating rents and housing prices. DPP’s coalition with the TPP against the KMT remains a key priority for Lai. This may include adjusting the DPP’s energy policy to promote nuclear power aligned with the TPP platform, and a greater focus on hospital integration and investment in the medical field.
However, whilst he might need to make legislative concessions, Lai can rest assured that his election signifies the will of the Taiwanese electorate, the majority of whom now resonate with a Taiwanese identity separate from Chinese identity, to stand against China’s demands for reunification. It is worth considering that the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) crackdown on Hong Kong in 2019 is still fresh in the mind of the Taiwanese public, and likely incentivised support for candidates who are staunchly against reunification to avoid a similar fate as a ‘special administrative territory’ of China through pacification. As a result, the public has, and will continue to, rally behind his less conciliatory approach towards China that guarantees Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty.
Domestic support aside, Taiwan cannot afford complacency towards China, especially in the context of Lai’s agenda and China’s influences on the electoral process. Whilst Chinese intimidation was not the only factor, the Taiwanese public is increasingly aware of the military threat posed by the mainland and the DPP vote share did decrease. Prior to the election, the Chinese military conducted flights within Taiwanese airspace, and suspended tax concessions on 12 chemical compounds from Taiwan on December 21 in an attempt to coerce Taiwanese business elites to align their political affiliations towards a conciliatory stance with China. Indeed, political donations play a crucial role in determining the legislative direction in Taipei, and the tax suspension implies that Beijing is willing to further target trade impacting the wider populace should they trend towards separatism.
Moreover, in his 2024 New Year’s address, Xi called reunification a ‘historical inevitability’, reinforcing his Taiwanese integration agenda by the mid-century, paired with the promise of the Chinese Defence Ministry to ‘resolutely crush any form of secessionist designs for “Taiwanese independence”’ by ‘all means necessary’. This Chinese threat has not been bound exclusively to rhetoric: on January 15, Nauru severed political ties with Taipei, switching allegiance to Beijing, the 10th former ally of Taiwan to do so. Though this is rooted in the propensity, and indeed ability, of the PRC to provide financial aid to the Pacific island-nations, the greater impact for Taiwan is weakened international recognition and support. Furthermore, following the results of January’s election, Taiwan’s defence ministry reported 24 planes and 5 navy vessels registered to the PLA crossing into Taiwanese unofficial maritime borders. Pentagon reports from October 2023 signalled that, should China commit to a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, it could direct more than a million ground troops, 1,900 fighter jets, and over 2,000 missiles, effectively overwhelming Taiwan before its defensive measures - the so-called ‘porcupine strategy’ - could generate sufficient protection. Taiwan’s continued vigilance is an imperative.
China's determination for Taiwanese reintegration has complex reasons. Beijing’s ‘one-China’ policy aims to unify the Chinese and Taiwanese population as a core component of Chinese identity and reinforce Xi’s popular support to serve his political legacy. In the security realm, reunification is essential for China to monopolise the microchip industry - Taiwan produces over 60% of the world’s semiconductors, and over 90% of the advanced forms - critical to cutting-edge technologies around the globe. Practically, Taiwanese integration would remove a vital pro-American ally from the South China Sea, allowing China to expand into claimed territories to secure vital resources and regional maritime hegemony.
However, whilst Taiwanese integration through military invasion might serve as the most practical means, Beijing will be astutely aware that such efforts will come at a huge cost by eliminating its international diplomatic and economic connections, and may harm more than it helps. Reports published after the Taiwanese election suggest that, whilst the military threat posed by Beijing is far from non-existent, it might not be as imminent as China presents. A press report by Bloomberg claims that ‘US intelligence assessments have evidence that the reliability of China’s new nuclear missiles may be undermined by corruption within China’s People Liberation Army Rocket Forces’. This includes the misappropriation of jet fuel (that left many components filled with water instead), and dysfunctional missile silo lids that render entire fields of military equipment non-operational, calling into question China’s readiness and overall capabilities. The implication of these intelligence reports is that the anti-corruption purge taken by Xi in October, in which defence minister Li Shangfu was dismissed, was orchestrated as a result of these military failures, and illustrates that Xi’s pursuit of military impenetrability is not yet secured. As a result, it appears unlikely that the PLA will engage in any major military campaign in the near future, particularly a full-scale invasion of Taiwanese territory that will require maximum military concentration. Yet, Xi continues to discipline his military in pursuit of a ‘world-class’ military by 2050 (despite a defence budget growing faster relative to the Chinese economy), especially with integration of the Taiwanese economy into that of China.
As Rex Li observes, ‘the relative peace in the Taiwan Strait is likely to continue in the next few months and possibly years, which will be punctuated by tensions and crises’. Whilst US intelligence reports on the operability of Chinese military will come as a relief to incoming president Lai, complacency can, and will, never become an option for Taiwan, as their de facto sovereignty is never secured considering unguaranteed military support from the United States. Despite support from high-profile congresspersons in recent years such as Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022, President Biden reiterated that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, with implied continuity of strategic ambiguity should the presidency shift at the end of the year. Taiwan must be realistic in that the United States has its own priorities, playing around this ambivalence to avoid outright military engagement with China. Likewise, as the United States becomes less receptive to the idea of continued aid to Ukraine, and never distributed direct military force to confront Russian invasion, Taiwan should be less reliant on the United States. Notwithstanding, Taiwan should not turn away from American support, as it still remains an important ally to the United States as a liberal democratic presence in Asia-Pacific and an asset to dominate the global chip supply chain.
Should Taiwan view China as a paper tiger, all bark with no bite? Absolutely not. But is the threat of Chinese invasion imminent any day now? Not that either. What remains likely is the continuation of the heralded status quo, staple Chinese intimidation of Taiwan, and Taipei continuing to toe the line of defiance of Beijing, neither reunification, nor formal secession. It is obvious that China will learn from international response to Russian aggression, and indeed military superiority does not always guarantee victory over a small nation. Although China will unlikely resort to a full invasion of Taiwan, it was relatively unprecedented when Russia began reincorporating Ukraine into its territory, thus Taiwan must remain vigilant. Above all, the electoral success of Lai and DPP still signifies ‘a victory for the community of democracy’. The status quo is, and will continue to be, Lai’s saving grace, to defend Taiwanese democracy and sovereignty without angering the dragon.