The Path Forward: What Taiwan's Elections Mean for the Asia-Pacific
The Pulse

The Path Forward: What Taiwan's Elections Mean for the Asia-Pacific

On January 13, 2024, Taiwan took to the polls to elect a new president and legislature. DPP candidate Lai Ching-te came out on top, and despite his win marking an unprecedented third term by the DPP, Lai’s tenure will not be without difficulty. During his presidency, Lai will face mounting domestic pressures while also navigating significant challenges abroad, including in emerging regional ‘minilaterals’ and deciding the role that Taiwan will take on in the Asia-Pacific.

For this week’s Pulse, Brian Hioe, Russell Hsiao, and Chong Ja Ian weigh in on what the elections mean for Taiwan’s future, how President-elect Lai envisions Taiwan’s role in the region, and what we can expect from China in the aftermath of the elections.

President-elect Lai Ching-te has said that maintaining security across the Taiwan Strait and peace in the Indo-Pacific would be his “most important mission” as president. President Tsai has also said that she wants Taiwan to take on a larger role in the region. What do you think is Taiwan’s ideal engagement with the region? Where do you feel Taiwan’s priorities are when it comes to securing regional stability?

Brian Hioe

Taiwan’s priorities under the Lai administration will be to maintain Taiwan’s strong ties with the US, while hoping to boost ties with other potential regional allies. This would be with an eye on not only security ties but strengthening economic cooperation in order to reduce dependency on the Chinese market. At the same time, Lai will seek to minimize giving pretexts for China to react. This is probably the most logical path forward for Taiwan: seeking to boost international ties while avoiding pretext for aggression from China.

Russell Hsiao

I think what the president-elect of Taiwan meant by it being his “most important mission” is how Lai understands that Taipei must act responsibly in terms of cross-Strait relations because the implications extend beyond just the Taiwan Strait. The statement is intended as a reassurance to like-minded allies and partners, and also the international community writ large that Taipei, under Lai’s leadership, will maintain the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait and this means that he will maintain the ROC constitutional framework for cross-Strait relations and not provoke Beijing by declaring de jure independence.

At the same time, as the international response to COVID-19 clearly demonstrated, Taiwan has a legitimate and important role to play in the international arena. Yet, its participation in international bodies has been unjustly impeded by the misrepresentation and misuse of UN Resolution 2758 to unfairly exclude Taiwan. This not only harms Taiwan but prevents the international community from benefiting from its many competent areas of expertise. Consequently, while Lai understands that it needs to handle cross-Strait relations responsibly, he will also continue to seek out the Taiwanese people’s legitimate place in the international community, while deterring Beijing from coercing it into an unfair settlement of cross-Strait disputes.

Chong Ja Ian

Taiwan’s priorities are to have a stable environment where it can enjoy the ability to act autonomously and have good relations with all its neighbours, including the PRC. These are conditions under which Taiwan can prosper economically and also continue the consolidation and development of its hard-earned democracy—and do so in peace, without the threat of violence. Taiwan’s realistic priorities are to maintain the status quo where it is able to act on its own even with limited diplomatic recognition, but avoid overly aggressive PRC actions. Repeated opinion polling shows very clearly that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese want to keep the status quo regardless of their aspirations for a final status. This is as close to a consensus as you can get in a vibrant and active democracy. Taiwanese will punish politicians who veer from this basic understanding, whether it is Chen Shui-bian and the DPP in 2008 or Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT in 2014 and 2016.

Security pacts like AUKUS, the Quad, and the Spirit of Camp David are becoming increasingly popular across the Asia-Pacific. How do these security arrangements affect Taiwan? Do you expect Taiwan’s engagement with these groups to change following this election result?

Brian Hioe

Lai has expressed an interest in joining the Quad in the past, though AUKUS is probably off the table for Taiwan given how strongly China would react to that. The Lai administration probably has its eye on trying to push for Taiwan’s inclusion in security arrangements, but it is almost certain that China would react strongly. The KMT party, Lai’s domestic opposition in Taiwan, would likewise try to frame the Lai administration as provoking China by trying to enter or build stronger ties with such security arrangements, perhaps similar to claims in global political discourse that Ukraine provoked Russia by becoming too close to NATO.

Russell Hsiao

These security arrangements weave together many of the critical security partnerships of the United States into a tapestry of loose multilateral defense and security cooperation mechanisms that could build collective deterrence and resilience. While neither explicitly nor directly applicable to a Taiwan contingency, they create multiple backstops to Chinese aggression if and when the PRC should decide to initiate a war of choice over Taiwan or other regional disputes. It is notable that all the countries involved in these security arrangements have all independently begun to enhance their bilateral engagement with Taiwan to various degrees. If, and it appears likely that Beijing’s military aggression toward Taiwan intensifies in the year to come, it is likely that these groups’ engagement with Taiwan will also increase to better secure peace and stability not just in the Taiwan Strait but also beyond.

Chong Ja Ian

These arrangements help stabilise East Asia and are obviously of interest to Taiwan. Moreover, they are supportive of the current rules-based international order from which Taiwan benefits. Taiwan is also aligned with members of these arrangements in terms of their shared democratic values. Taiwan will continue to seek quiet contact and mutual understanding with these arrangements after the election. The new Lai administration will seek to maintain the momentum created under the Tsai administration. Such contact is particularly important given that Beijing is likely to test Taiwan’s new administration in the coming months. PRC rivalry with the United States and Beijing’s efforts to impose more of its preferences from Northeast through Southeast Asia will persist. These conditions mean that joint efforts to maintain stability, preferably in coordination with Taiwan, become more important. That said, Lai Ching-te’s Democratic Progressive Party no longer has a majority in the legislature. This may make the Lai administration’s efforts to move forward on working with security arrangements in Asia more complicated.

Many are worried about a Chinese reaction to the election results, particularly given its intensifying military activities around Taiwan. How do you expect China to respond to these results? Do you feel Beijing will be distinctly more diplomatically and militarily aggressive toward Taiwan and its partners going forward; continue its “status quo” of gradually increasing the complexity and tempo of military activities around Taiwan; or adopt a different posture?

Brian Hioe

China already poached one of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, Nauru, in the immediate days after Lai’s win. Other measures China could take to flex its muscles against Taiwan are conducting more military exercises or announcing bans on Taiwanese products. China will seek to project strength and keep up pressure against Taiwan, yet how much force it applies may, in fact, not depend on any action that Taiwan takes, but rather how far it is willing to ramp up tensions with the US.

Russell Hsiao

Beijing has made its intent on how it plans to deal with the incoming Lai Administration clear. While it took two months for Beijing to fire the first salvo of its diplomatic offensive against Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 via Gambia, it took less than two days in 2024 with the president-elect with the switch of diplomatic ties by Nauru. To be sure, cross-Strait relations have already entered a protracted state of heightened tensions, and we can expect to see an escalation in CCP’s political warfare activities directed at Taiwan in the months and years to come. These activities will range from intensified military and non-military gray zone operations that further infringes upon Taiwan’s maritime zones and boundaries, economic coercion, information/disinformation campaigns, and most notably intensified United Front activities targeting especially the opposition parties, grassroots organizations, and youths.

Chong Ja Ian

PRC pressure on Taiwan will not let up. Xi Jinping has repeated his desire to control Taiwan, and the PRC MOFA and Taiwan Affairs Office have repeated such desires immediately after the election. In this respect, it is not in essence different from PRC efforts to establish more control over the South China Sea and East China Sea. There will be more PRC military and economic pressure, as well as efforts by Beijing to insert itself into Taiwan domestic politics. Note that one prospective presidential candidate, the tycoon Terry Gou ended his candidacy when Beijing began to put pressure on his business interests in the PRC. That said, such pressure only further alienates the Taiwan public from the PRC. This election cycle, all the main parties emphasised a need to be distinct from the PRC. Taiwan’s economy will also further diversify away from the PRC. Taiwan outbound FDI to Southeast Asia now exceeds outbound FDI to the PRC, for instance. Of course, PRC pressure could result in escalation, unintended or otherwise. The key to maintaining stability may be effective deterrence of provocative behaviour. Any cooperation can come on top of that.
In the immediate term, I expect PRC diplomatic, political, economic, and military efforts to isolate and pressure Taiwan to intensify. Beijing may seek to press Lai Ching-te into making some sort of concession that it can then hold Lai to according to its own interpretation. Following the inauguration on May 20, Beijing may wish to test Lai to see if he will make a mistake or get frustrated. If Lai is forced into acting in ways that Beijing can characterise as being a troublemaker, they will be quick to remind the world of it. Already, Beijing is calling Lai provocative for wanting to maintain the status quo rather than to accept their demands.

About the Authors

Header image source: 副總統率團出席宏都拉斯共和國總統卡蕬楚就職典禮」發表行前談話, 2022/01/25. Official Photo by Shufu Liu / Office of the President, Taiwan.
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