May 23, 2023 - World

View from Taiwan: KMT frames 2024 election as a choice between war and peace

Illustration of a man in an army uniform and a man in a business suit in voting booths

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

KINMEN, Taiwan — Decommissioned tanks, rusting anti-landing barriers and monuments to fallen soldiers dot the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, just a few miles off the Chinese coast, where the final battle of the Chinese civil war was fought in 1949. The island has long been a stronghold of the Taiwanese political party that is now campaigning on a platform of preserving peace with China.

Why it matters: People in Taiwan view the next presidential election, to be held in January 2024, as a crucial turning point that could determine Taiwan's future as a democracy free from Beijing's grip.

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered China's military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. The Chinese government believes it has sovereignty over Taiwan, which has governed itself since 1949 and has never been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

The big picture: The Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) is casting the election in stark terms: A vote for the KMT is a vote for peace, while a vote for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could lead to war with China.

  • The KMT views warm relations with Beijing as the best guarantee of Taiwan's security, while the DPP believes pursuing close ties with the U.S. and other democracies is the best way to protect Taiwan from China.
  • The Chinese government has cut off communications with the DPP, while the KMT is still able to engage in dialogue with leaders in China.

Driving the news: The KMT formally announced last week that its presidential candidate is current New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi.

  • The ruling DPP's candidate is the country's current vice president Lai Ching-te.
  • The intrigue: The Taiwan People's Party (TPP), founded in 2019 and built largely around the personal charisma of former Taipei City Mayor and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je, will likely draw more voters from the KMT than from the DPP.

Details: The three political parties are all "framing this upcoming election as an election that will determine the future of Taiwan," Russell Hsiao, executive director of the D.C.-based Global Taiwan Institute, told Axios.

  • The KMT: Hou said last week he supports peace in the Taiwan Strait. Former Taiwan President and KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou put it even more starkly in January, saying, "Vote for the DPP, youth will go to the battlefield. Vote for the Kuomintang, and there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait."
  • The DPP: Lai said after his nomination last month that Taiwan faces a choice between "democracy and autocracy," not war and peace, and that his party will preserve Taiwan's democracy from incursions by China's autocratic government.
  • The TPP: Ko, the party's founder, has primarily framed a vote for the TPP as a way to break the dominance of the two main parties. "In the past, local elections were constantly exploited by KMT and DPP," Ko said in 2022. "We will end the vicious cycle and make space for better political parties to thrive."

The DPP says it stands for peace too — Lai said in April that "peace is priceless" — but has a different approach.

  • Everyone wants peace, but "you have to defend yourself to maintain peace," Michael Hsiao, senior adviser to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, told Axios.
  • "Who agitates? I think China, not Taiwan."

Nowhere is the war-peace binary felt more deeply than on Kinmen.

Zoom in: Kinmen was the site of the final bloody battle of the Chinese civil war, when KMT forces that were garrisoned on the small island stopped the advancing Chinese Communist Party military. For the next 20 years, residents of Kinmen faced frequent bombardment from the mainland. Hundreds of thousands of artillery shells hit the island during that time.

  • The island is now home to a flourishing war tourism industry, popular among tourists from both China and Taiwan. Guides emphasize that Kinmen's experience shows that war between China and Taiwan must never happen again. Kitchen knives made from Chinese artillery shells are popular souvenirs.

Kinmen is a KMT stronghold, due in part to the island's cultural and geographic proximity to the mainland, and in part to the residents' memories of war and death.

  • The Chinese Communist Party never invaded the main island of Taiwan, so people there “never experienced the horror of war,” Wu Xingbang, the KMT party chief for the island of Kinmen, told Axios in an interview last month.
  • “The children who grew up on Taiwan weren’t baptized by war,” Wu said. But “our generation on Kinmen, we experienced the horror of war. War has no winners.”
  • “The DPP is always demanding Taiwan independence. But that’s impossible. They are using the issue of Taiwan independence to trick people into voting for them," Wu said. “They keep crossing China’s so-called red lines.”

Residents of Kinmen echoed Wu's sentiments in interviews with Axios.

  • "See how peaceful Kinmen is?" said Xu Guanghui, a retiree and Kinmen native who now volunteers at a local park. 'We want peace, we don't want to fight. ... But our president is pushing for Taiwan independence."
  • Taiwan is independent and always has been, said Feng Yongjin, a former construction worker. But that doesn't mean Tsai should openly "push Taiwan independence," because that will only provoke China, Feng said.

Between the lines: Feng's comments reflect a broader desire among Taiwan's residents, regardless of party affiliation, to maintain the status quo, in which Taiwan operates as an independent country but doesn't formally declare itself to be separate from mainland China.

  • Opinion polls consistently show the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese support some version of that status quo.

What to watch: Early national polling suggests the DPP's Lai is ahead, and the KMT and the TPP are trailing in close competition with each other.

  • But with nine months remaining until the election, Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told Axios, "Polling is likely to fluctuate wildly over the next nine months as the domestic and international situation continues to change."
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