Taiwan elects another anti-China president, heralding continued US-China tensions

Posted on : 2024-01-15 17:31 KST Modified on : 2024-01-15 17:31 KST
Beijing has not hidden its distaste for Lai, whom it has labeled a “dangerous separatist”
Leadership and supporters of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party rejoice after their victory in the presidential election is confirmed on Dec. 13 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Leadership and supporters of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party rejoice after their victory in the presidential election is confirmed on Dec. 13 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Reuters/Yonhap)

Taiwan’s incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which campaigned on safeguarding democracy for the island, emerged victorious in the 2024 presidential election on Saturday, with Lai Ching-te becoming president-elect.
With Taiwan electing a candidate labeled “dangerous” by China as its leader, it appears likely that tensions will persist in cross-strait relations, as well as the US-China relationship, for the foreseeable future.  
According to voting results released by Taiwan’s Central Election Commission on Sunday, Lai won the presidential election with 5.58 million votes (40.05%). Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) came up short in the race, garnering only 4.67 million votes (33.49%). 
Since 2000, Taiwan has seen the presidency trade hands between the DPP and KMT every eight years, but this most recent election has broken that cycle. The DPP has secured a third consecutive presidential term, following President Tsai Ing-wen’s two terms in office. Lai will be inaugurated on May 20.
In the legislative election that took place on the same day as the presidential election, the KMT won 52 seats, the DPP won 51 seats, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) captured eight seats in the Legislative Yuan, as the parliament is known.
While the KMT scored one more seat than the DPP, allowing it to have the largest representation in the Yuan, it failed to win a majority (57 seats). This leaves the TPP, which was founded in 2019, with the power to exercise the casting vote.
The TPP has also established itself as a strong third party, with Ko Wen-je, who proved popular among younger voters, earning 26.46% of the votes in the presidential election. 
The DPP’s victory showed that aversion to China is so prevalent in Taiwan that it eclipses anxieties over the possibility of war. Throughout its campaign, the DPP argued that Taiwan stood for “democracy,” while China signified “autocracy,” and emphasized that Taiwan would only be able to stand with its democratic allies to protect its democratic system if the DPP won the election.
In his victory speech on Saturday night, Lai vowed that Taiwan would “stand on the side of democracy,” and “continue to walk side by side with the democracies of the world.”
Foreign media outlets also reported that China’s demanding, forceful stance caused its plan to backfire.

Regarding the outcome of Taiwan’s recent presidential election, the New York Times concluded, “Beijing’s arm-twisting of Taiwan — economically and with military harassment at sea and in the air — has only strengthened the island’s desire to protect its de facto independence and move beyond China's giant shadow.”

As the main opposition party, the KMT ran on the idea that this election was a choice between “peace and war,” vowing to protect peace in the Taiwan Strait by enhancing exchange and cooperation with China. But rather than seek peace by trying to pacify China and relieve tensions with Beijing, the people of Taiwan chose to bolster their national security through enhancing alliances with other democracies, centering on the US.  

The victorious DPP has a staunch pro-sovereignty stance, as opposed to the more conciliatory KMT. Observers are waiting to see how Beijing will react to the fact that it will have to deal with four more years of a defiant, pro-independence Taiwanese government. 

On Wednesday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office released a statement on Lai Ching-te: “The so-called ‘new conditions’ that he [Lai] is striving for will subject the Taiwan Strait to the violent waves of a vicious storm.” The Chinese state is not being shy about its distaste for the new Taiwanese president.   

At this point, China cannot avoid the strategic failure of the past eight years, during which Beijing cut off all communication channels with Taipei. After securing his third consecutive term in 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping blatantly shared his vision of forcing Taiwan to unify with mainland China, stating that Beijing “will never promise to renounce the use of force.” After observing Beijing’s suppression of the Hong Kong protests in 2019, however, Taiwan has continued to distance itself from the mainland. 

Just two hours after the DPP secured both the presidency while failing to secure a parliamentary majority, China released a statement in which it said the two Taiwanese elections, presidential and parliamentary, show that the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream.” Instead of acknowledging its policy failure, China is doubling down by ramping up its attacks and pressure on Taiwan.  

After his victory, Lai declared that Taiwan will “walk side by side with the democracies of the world.” In response, China is likely to continue its pressure campaigns against Taiwan — but more importantly, against the US. 

Since it has failed to secure a direct line into Taiwanese affairs, Beijing may try to find an indirect line through Washington by elevating tensions surrounding the Taiwan Strait. Until Lai is officially sworn in as president on May 20, China has all the time to levy economic and military pressure on Taiwan to gain leverage in relations with the US. 

Shortly after the DPP’s victory, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement saying, “The United States is committed to maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability, and the peaceful resolution of differences, free from coercion and pressure.” 

For now, it seems, Washington’s approach toward Taiwan is maintaining the status quo. 

Currently tangled up in wars in Ukraine and in the Middle East, the US is likely betting on the continuation of its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China via its allies, thereby maintaining cross-strait peace. Washington is worried that the openly anti-Beijing, pro-sovereignty rhetoric of Lai could rock the boat of diplomacy.

Lai has attempted to allay these concerns. In a column in the Wall Street Journal in July 2023, he wrote, “My commitment to defending peace, our democratic achievements and the cross-strait status quo is stronger than ever.”

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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