Jan 9, 2024 - World

China looms large in Taiwan's presidential election

Taiwan's presidential candidates: William Lai, Ko Wen-je and Hou You-yi. Photos: Sam Yeh/AFP, Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP, Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

Saturday's presidential election in Taiwan will be one of this year's most watched contests, as voters head to the polls to choose a new leader who will chart the future of the island's relations with China —a decision that will be felt far beyond the Indo-Pacific.

Why it matters: Taiwan is a potential U.S.-China flashpoint. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized that China has the right to take Taiwan, by force if Beijing deems necessary.

  • The U.S. has strong unofficial ties to Taiwan and President Biden has repeatedly said the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacked — though official U.S. policy regarding the defense of Taiwan is known as "strategic ambiguity," meaning the U.S. won't publicly state its actual intention.

The big picture: The election comes at a crucial time as the Chinese government ratchets up pressure on the self-governing democracy by deploying military, diplomatic and economic coercion in its attempts to convince the island's residents that unification with China is the only possible future.

  • A top Chinese government official last week urged Taiwanese people to "stand on the right side of history" and make the "correct choice."
  • The Chinese military has increased its incursions into the air and waters near Taiwan over the past month, and has sent high-altitude balloons over the island.
  • Taiwan is a key U.S. partner in the region and is home to semiconductor manufacturer TSMC, the only facility in the world that makes certain critical components for smart phones, cars, and satellites.

The key players: This year's election features not just candidates from the two major parties but also a third candidate who seeks to disrupt the two-party system.

  • The ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) William Lai is vice president to the current DPP president Tsai Ing-wen, who has advocated forcefully for Taiwan — attracting Beijing's ire. Lai, like Tsai, believes Taiwan should be an independent actor on the world stage and has described himself as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence." The Chinese foreign ministry has called him a "separatist through and through."
  • The Kuomintang's (KMT) Hou You-yi is the popular mayor of New Taipei City and former police chief. He opposes Taiwan independence in favor of the status quo.
  • The Taiwan People's Party's (TPP) Ko Wen-je, a former Taipei mayor, founded the TPP in 2019 and seeks to appeal to voters who are tired of the two major parties and want something new. His views on China fall somewhere between the DPP and KMT; he has called for both "deterrence and communication" with China.

Of note: The vice presidential picks for two of the three candidates highlight Taiwan's close relationship and people-to-people ties with the U.S. Lai's running mate, Taiwan's former representative to the U.S. Bi-khim Hsiao, spent parts of her childhood in the U.S. and Japan.

  • Ko's running mate, business executive and politician Cynthia Wu, was born in the U.S.

Details: Campaign rhetoric this year has been acrimonious. KMT supporters resent eight continuous years of DPP rule, and Hou has accused the DPP of acting like a "dictatorship."

  • Lai, meanwhile, has called the KMT's position on cross-Strait relations "deadly" and accused the party's leaders of trying to "befriend the communists."
  • Meanwhile, election-related misinformation has proliferated online, and disinformation experts say Beijing-linked actors have promoted stories that cast doubt on the efficacy and legitimacy of Taiwan's democracy and on the reliability of the U.S. as a partner.

What to watch: The DPP's Lai is the frontrunner for the presidential election, but the KMT and TPP are likely to prevail in legislative elections, denying the DPP control of Taiwan's legislature and creating a split government that would make it more difficult for Lai to accomplish his agenda.

  • Beijing prefers a KMT-ruled Taiwan and could respond to a potential third DPP term by further increasing pressure on the island — potentially disrupting regional and global trade and transportation.
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