Human Rights and
International Democratic Solidarity


The Sinic Analysis


Why Taiwan’s presidential election is important for regional peace

Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections carry great significance for the overall stability of US-China relations and the cohesion of Indo-Pacific regional alignment.
By Wen-ti Sung

Taiwan will hold its quadrennial presidential and legislative elections on January 13th, 2024.  The election will carry great significance for the overall stability of US-China relations in this era of great power strategic competition and increasingly volatile US-China performative military one-upmanship. Whoever becomes Taiwan’s next president will have outsized influence over China’s geopolitical ambition in the region, and for mediating China’s relationship with the US and US’ like-minded partners.

So who are the candidates contesting for Taiwan’s presidency?  The 2024 presidential campaign is a three-way race defined mainly by the candidates’ positions on cross-strait relations, namely where Taiwan should stand between China and the US.  The three main campaigns are the ruling party, the Taiwanese nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which has been in power for 8 years, the Beijing-friendlier opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and finally the populist new third party, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which focuses more on channeling domestic grievances and is more strategically ambiguous on China policy.

Poling trends suggest a divided electorate. At the moment the ruling party DPP seems favored to narrowly win the presidency with a minority of the votes, and the opposition KMT is staying within striking distance and may still have a shot especially if it plays its card right in the final weeks, while the third party TPP has the potential to become the decisive swing vote in the next legislature.

Whoever wins, chances are after the elections Taiwan will produce a new president with a weaker mandate electorally and will be hamstrung by an opposition-held legislature. That will be a far cry from the last 2020 elections, when the DPP was reelected back in with 57 percent of the presidential votes and a solid legislative majority.

Electorally, China policy tends to be the single most important factor deciding presidential elections, and on this the two main political parties, DPP and KMT, do present starkly different visions.

A win by the Beijing-friendlier KMT will carry both strategic and economic implications. Strategically, a KMT victory would mean calmer relations between Taiwan and China, but potentially planting seeds of doubt between Taipei and Washington. There is often a zero-sum game relationship in terms of Taiwan’s relations with Beijing and Washington. US-Taiwan ties has seen major progress in recent years including in areas of security cooperation and US government providing the first-ever foreign military financing (FMF) for Taiwan in September 2023. Should the potential KMT administration decides to warm up relations with Beijing, it will need to handle it with great wisdom and finesse in order to aver a cool-down of US-Taiwan ties.

Economically, KMT has promised to accelerate cross-strait economic ties even though many of Taiwan’s trading partners’ diversification or ‘de-risking’ away from Chinese economy. The KMT’s presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih has also promised to reactivate the 2013 Cross-Strait Services and Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – a trade deal signed between Taiwan and China intended to bring the two economies closer together, but which was met with waves of protests from Taiwan’s civil society and eventually failed to get ratified by Taiwan’s legislature.

On the people-to-people interaction level, KMT also pledges to double-down on exploring opening Taiwan’s job market to PRC workers in the name of both economic liberalization and building cross-strait goodwill from the ground up.

Conversely, if the more Taiwanese nationalist DPP wins, it will likely be met with even more pressure from China. Rhetorical censure is a certainty: Beijing has repeatedly criticized the DPP’s candidate, current Vice President Lai Ching-te by name, leaving DPP with little face-saving off-ramp. That includes calling Lai “shamelessly leveraging US-Taiwan ties to pursue de jure independence” when Lai visited the US in August.

More economic sanctions against Taiwan is also likely if DPP wins. Beijing’s equivalent of Taiwan Affairs Minister Song Tao has already framed Taiwan’s election as a choice between not only “peace or war” but also between “prosperity or recession”. As part of that economic offensive, China has already suspended part of the preferential tariff treatments for some Taiwanese exports to the People’s Republic of China, possibly partly as a way to exert ‘stick’ to deter Taiwanese voters from voting for DPP.

Preemptive punishment against the DPP has also manifested in increased Chinese military activity in waters and in the air near Taiwan.  Should the DPP win, there is every reason to expect such provocative Chinese military greyzone operations to continue, possibly even intensify.

The risks of military escalation is increasing by the day, especially as China seems intent on continuing to amp up its military maneuvers near Taiwan, forcing the US and other like-minded partners to launch their own freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the vicinity, thereby creating a de facto game of chicken between the American and Chinese militaries, making accidents more likely.  And not just accidental escalation – because Beijing boycotts official and semi-official communication channels with the DPP government (and sometimes with Washington as well), the absence of contact makes worst-case scenario and overreaction even more likely, thereby also increases the chances of intentional (even if misguided) escalation.

Whether Beijing can be convinced to tone down its coercion campaign and help stabilize peace and stability of Taiwan Strait may rest on whether Taiwan’s political parties can win convincing victories at the upcoming elections, whether it’s the DPP or KMT.

An emphatic DPP victory would enable Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength. A DPP victory would also break Taiwan’s infamous “eight-year curse”, and become the first party ever to win unprecedented three consecutive terms in Taiwan’s democratic era. That may finally convince Beijing that DPP is here to stay and that Chinese attempts to undermine it is futile. In turn, that may potentially give Beijing more incentive to show new flexibility and goodwill towards DPP, in the hope of breaking the cross-strait impasse.

However, if DPP wins the presidency on a slim margin and fails to hold majority in the legislature, Beijing will have little incentive to show DPP any goodwill, and cross-strait security tension will remain high.

Alternatively, a convincing KMT victory would give it stronger domestic mandate to pursue its cross-strait economic engagement agenda. That means KMT may be able to negotiate better terms with Beijing and that whatever deal KMT signs with Beijing may stand a better chance of being accepted and ratified by Taiwanese people and legislature back home.

In short, Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections carry great significance for the overall stability of US-China relations and the cohesion of Indo-Pacific regional alignment.  Regardless of which Taiwanese party wins the presidency, the threat to cross-strait stability comes from Beijing’s daily provocative military maneuvers near Taiwan, especially in light of the relative absence of communication channels between Beijing and Taipei and Washington. The solutions to regional instability are two-fold: Taiwanese voters need to give its next government a convincing victory to strengthen its hand at the negotiation table, and Beijing needs to find the moderation and pragmatism to pursue its ambition towards Taiwan through peaceful rather than military means.

Wen-ti Sung
Wen-ti Sung

More about the project The Sinic Analysis
Latest videos