Why Taiwan election results are important for future of democracy and containment of China

Beijing might still use this election victory for President Tsai as a pretext to increase aggression and to justify that peaceful reunification is a lost cause, portraying the DPP as the cause of increasing cross-Strait tensions.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Jan 16, 2024
Representational Photo

Taiwan’s presidential election on 13 January remains a pivotal crossroads for both the Taiwanese people and the regional fate of stability, peace and democracy. Amidst the backdrop of the systemic attack on freedom and democracy from Ukraine to Hong Kong, the stakes in the elections in Taiwan could not have not been higher.

This race creates the moment of truth in determining Taiwan's foreign policy, its national security and future ties with China and the US. The stakes involved are not on Taiwan’s future and freedom to choose its direction and respecting the voices of its people alone, the stakes are the future of global security and the region’s resolve to secure the rules-based order and democracy itself.

This election was dominated by the prospect of war, which each contender has argued that they alone can mitigate and prevent, and accusing the others of risking Taiwan’s security prospects with their policies on China and the US.

Parties differed on China outlook

Under President Tsai Ing-wen, she continued the mantra of Taiwan’s self-governance and democratic ideals of respecting the will of the Taiwanese people in determining the future of Taiwan, which are reflected in her expansion of Taiwan's international presence and defense capabilities, despite Beijing's best efforts to isolate her regime and legitimacy.

DPP’s William Lai reiterated his position on Taiwan’s ties with China, stating that Taiwan is an independent and sovereign nation, but will not seek confrontation with China. The future of Taiwan must be dictated through democratic platforms where only the people of Taiwan will have the full rights to decide, and not through Beijing’s decision alone.

DPP's principal challenger KMT’s Hou Yu-ih seeks to have closer economic ties with China. TPP’s Ko Wen-je has branded DPP to be pro-war and KMT to be too deferential to China and sought to strike the right balance and have closer ties with Beijing.

All three candidates acknowledged the potential conflict risks for Taiwan and publicly voiced support for raising the defense budget, but to see that through with conviction and without the eventual ire and pressure from Beijing will be the key.   

The KMT's main narrative is that war can only be prevented by accepting that Taiwan is not a separate entity from China. Tensions can also be mitigated through closer economic relations, at least according to KMT elites. KMT has revived its flagging influence with majority wins in local councils and mayoralties across Taiwan in the local polls in 2022. 

The KMT backs the "1992 Consensus" and its "One China" notion. The DPP rejected it. While KMT has argued that the "1992 Consensus" is the key to defusing tension with Beijing, the majority worry that endorsing this consensus will risk undermining Taiwan’s status as a separate political entity and opens the door for a political union with China.

China's election meddling

Tsai's government has been fending off not only Chinese military incursions and saber-rattling tactics but also heavy-handed election meddling and disinformation.

The Chinese state and affiliated entities represent a solid force for amplifying anti-US content, as stated by  Chih Hao Yu, co-director of the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG) citing an analysis of two years of news reports from mainstream media in Taiwan.

 William Lai has pointed out the unprecedented scale of Beijing’s interference in this election, stating that this is the most serious meddling the island has ever seen ranging from political propaganda to cognitive warfare and fake news alongside sustained military intimidation.

 This is also reflected in the case of Ma Chih-wei, an independent candidate in parliamentary elections who was detained on charges of allegedly taking CCP financing for her campaign.

Previously,  counter-influence efforts by Taiwan have focused on local Chinese governments hosting  Taiwanese officials at the grassroots level on all-expenses-paid visits. Dozens of Taiwanese village chiefs were investigated for such trips during previous elections. Other ongoing practices include subsidised religious tours of Chinese temples, support for triad groups and indigenous communities and pressure on Taiwanese businesspeople in China.

 The defence ministry has begun disclosing the activity of Chinese military balloons in its daily updates, and last weekend denounced such flights as part of attempts at cognitive warfare to affect the morale of the Taiwanese people.

What Taiwan's democracy means

According to Bloomberg Economics modelling, a Chinese invasion will cost the global economy more than USD10 trillion, more than the Ukraine war and the Covid pandemic. It will also decimate the Taiwan economy and shrink Beijing’s economy by 16.7% and the US by 6.7% in the first year.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made it clear that Taiwan will eventually be reunited with China by all means in his New Year address. Xi’s fast closing time frame in seeing this through under his watch will mean that DPP’s win will almost certainly open new risks of force as the final option for Beijing. 

China has often been proposing to Taiwan that if the island accepts the "1992 Consensus", an unofficial understanding reached between the two sides that there is "One China," but the two disagree about what "China" means. 

The Afghanistan withdrawal has cast further doubt on Washington’s support for allies, with wariness to fully commit to a deterrence effort for Taiwan, especially with the prospect of a changing presidency in the US after 2024.

Some have accused Washington of "weaponising" Taiwan in its quest to contain Beijing's expansionism and are wary of Washington’s seriousness in defending the island. Others have foreseen the inevitable fact that even if the battle is won against a Chinese forceful invasion, it would be a pyrrhic victory and Taiwan would remain as scorched earth.

A just-released survey by Academia Sinica stated that only 9.3% of respondents agreed that China is a trustworthy country, while 55.3% disagreed. Perceptions of China's trustworthiness fell from 13.5% in a 2021 survey.

The DPP will need to project a new China policy to tackle the new efforts by Beijing to exert influence and change the course of domestic politics. Having learned its lesson in the 2022 local elections, it can no longer play the democracy, security, and Taiwan identity card at the expense of a credible long-term economic resilience plan away from China-centric dependence. 

Beijing might still use this election victory for President Tsai as a pretext to increase aggression and to justify that peaceful reunification is a lost cause, portraying the DPP as the cause of increasing cross-Strait tensions.

Taiwan’s freedom and democracy are not confined to the boundary of its island alone. Taipei’s harbinger of democracy is as much critical and impactful as the fight for freedom in Ukraine, and the aftermath of the outcome reverberates far and wide from Jakarta to Buenos Aires. For this reason alone, democracy cannot be left to die in darkness.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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