By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN
The year 2024 is the year of elections, with over 50 countries going to vote in their respective polls, the biggest test of democracy so far. The most notable of them would be those in the US, the UK, and India. As of January 20, 2024 we already saw the conclusion of the general elections in Bangladesh, with incumbent Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League securing the majority, and on the small island of Taiwan, where the current Vice-President and Presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Mr Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, swept the polls.
While the Bangladesh elections were instrumental in deciding the future of the country in the face of rising extremism in the domestic society, the elections in Taiwan have global geopolitical implications. Let us examine how the victory of the DPP in Taiwan can affect the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and can potentially lead to another Taiwan Strait crisis.
Victory of the Democratic Progressive Party
Before going into the geopolitical intricacies of this election, let us first analyse the victory of the DPP in electoral terms and when the new president can likely take over the reign of Taipei. On January 13, 2024 along with the elections of the legislature, the presidential elections were also held in the island of Taiwan. As mentioned earlier, William Lai of the DPP swept the polls, securing 40.1% of the votes, defeating Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), both of whom secured 33.5% and 26.5% of the votes, respectively.
Though William Lai is all set to become the next president of the Republic of China (official name of Taiwan), his party, the DPP, fell short of the majority in the country’s legislature, getting only 51 seats out of 113. By contrast, the KMT was able to secure 52 seats, the TPP 8 seats, and independent candidates two seats, making it difficult for the new president to drive his legislative agenda.
China’s Reaction to This Elections
Citizens of democracies love elections, for periodic elections give them an opportunity to decide who will lead their government, giving them influential power in deciding the fate of their country. Conversely, tyrannical regimes despise elections because they don’t want people to interfere in deciding who governs the country.
When elections happen in Taiwan, it is obvious for totalitarian China to oppose them not only for historical reasons but also for ideological and political reasons. We shall come to historical linkages in a later part of this piece, but for now, let us see how China responded politically and diplomatically to the election in Taiwan.
Just days after the results of the election were announced, China conducted joint combat patrols around Taiwan, a sign of deep discontent against William Lai. China preferred to have the KMT government in Taiwan, which is at this time sympathetic to the current ruling CCP on mainland China, instead of William Lai’s DPP, who is considered to be a China hawk and whom China called a separatist and is well known for his pro-democracy and anti-China stance.
Further, China has started diplomatic efforts to make sure countries around the world do not take cognizance of the Taiwanese polls because China considers Taiwan to be a part of the PRC. Two Southeast Asian countries, Singapore and the Philippines, which congratulated the Taiwanese new president, faced a strong diplomatic reaction from the Chinese foreign ministry, with it even making solemn démarches to Singapore.
In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said, “On behalf of the Filipino people, I congratulate President-elect Lai Ching-te on his election as Taiwan’s next President. We look forward to close collaboration, strengthening mutual interests, fostering peace, and ensuring prosperity for our peoples in the years ahead.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning, in response retaliated by telling Philippines against interfering in China’s internal affairs, even stating, “We would like to make it clear to the Philippines that it should refrain from playing with fire on the Taiwan question.” Defence Secretary of the Philippines Gilberto Teodoro Jr. retorted by accusing China of stooping to “low and gutter-level talk.”
Historical Background and Chinese Anxiety vis-à-vis Taiwan
In January of 1912, a few years before the commencement of the great war (World War I), the collapse of the Qing dynasty in October 1912 after more than 250 years of imperial rule, followed by the Xinhai Revolution, led to the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC). Then, revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen was elected as the first provisional president of the ROC. Although Sun Yat-sen tried to establish a centralised governance system, eventually the ROC was fragmented, with regional warlords controlling different parts of the country.
The warlord rule in China coincided with the end of World War I and the signing of the famous Treaty of Versailles, which surrendered German control areas of China to Japan instead of reinstating them with China. The student movement started on May 4, 1919 famously known as the May Fourth Movement, under the influence of which China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. In the aftermath of this movement, the Kuomintang (KMT) was established on October 10, 1919 and the Communist Party of China was founded in July 1921.
Initially, both parties worked together in what historians call a northern expedition that aimed at freeing China from warlords and unifying it, however, the differences between both parties since 1927 resulted in the Chinese Civil War. Though both parties collaborated during World War II against imperial Japan, after World War II, the struggle for power continued.
One by one, the CCP strengthened its hold on mainland China, eventually exiling the KMT and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, to the small island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. The Chinese Revolution in 1949 established the People’s Republic of China, which claimed to be the sole representative of the Chinese people. In the initial years, western countries, especially America, denied recognising Mao’s China, but with the passing years and the convergence of interests during the Cold War, Americans forced themselves to work with the PRC to weaken the overall sphere of influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
China promotes what it calls the One China Policy, under which it claims that there is only one China in the world, and that is the People’s Republic of China, led by the CCP, and Taiwan, though has autonomy in administration and in governance, is also part of mainland China.
Taiwan’s Journey Ahead and Challenges for Mr. William Lai
From time to time, Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, have reiterated their stance to reunify Taiwan with mainland China. Further, nationalist Chinese hawks often called for the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. In 2022, during a major party meeting, President Xi stated, “We insist on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and best efforts, but we will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures,” signalling the possibility of a ground invasion of the island.
In the face of evident Chinese ambitions, Washington, too, is determined to secure Taiwan from any Chinese military aggression. President Biden stated in 2022, in this context, that the U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, a clear shift from its position of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. William Lai, who is already being portrayed as the pro-independence and anti-China president, has to sail carefully amid this great power politics.
It will be interesting to see if William Lai successfully negotiates with America the deal, which the Biden administration already rejected earlier, to procure anti-submarine helicopters, which will help it deter China in the maritime domain. Additionally, it is very unlikely that the legislature, in which the opposition KMT holds the majority of seats, can approve an additional increase in the defence budget, making his agenda repugnant.
Another such critical sector is the semiconductor chip industry in Taiwan, in which the country is a leading manufacturer. Mr. Lai has promised continuous support to the chip-making industry of the country, which is not only instrumental for Taiwan but also for the entire globe due to the heavy demand for its chips in the global electronics and computer markets.
With the US being engaged in proxy wars in eastern Europe and west Asia, in addition to growing domestic discontent against President Xi in China, the possibility of a ground invasion of Taiwan cannot be denied. In the near future, the new president has to take decisions that make it possible to deter such aggressions not only militarily but also economically and ideologically.