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The 2024 Taiwan Election: Its Impact on Cross-Strait Relations and the U.S.-China-Taiwan Triangle

Ann Wang (Reuters) via Radio Free Asia


Introduction

On January 13th, 2024, global attention turned to Taiwan as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) secured an unprecedented third consecutive term, with Lai triumphing over rivals Hou (KMT) and Ko (TPP). In contrast to former President Tsai, who secured over 56% in both 2016 and 2020, Lai's victory did not secure a legislative majority (51 seats), signaling a shift from the DPP's previous legislative advantage. With the KMT also lacking a majority (52 seats), the TPP, despite having only eight seats, holds the potential to wield considerable influence (Hart et al., 2024).


Consequently, cooperation will be crucial for future legislative efforts. All three parties seek to secure Taiwan's independence and share key foreign policy priorities, including defence enhancement, ties with the U.S. and Japan, and maintaining the Taiwan Strait's status quo. However, they diverge on the best way to do so, with President-elect Lai opposing closer cooperation with Beijing while the KMT and TPP push for closer ties. Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated its opposition to the DPP, indicating a desire for the voters to make the "right choice" in this pivotal "peace and war" election (Sacks et al., 2024). With Taiwan's votes defying Beijing again and the U.S. reiterating its commitment to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion, experts remain divided on the possibility of escalation.


As a result, the DPP victory will not just shape domestic policies on the island but also cross-Strait relations and the intricate dynamics of the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle.

Historical context - Why China Wants Taiwan 

Post-World War II, the island fell under the control of the Republic of China (ROC) led by the KMT. However, in 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) triumphed in the Chinese Civil War, the ROC relocated to Taiwan, solidifying its separation from mainland China. Since then, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has consistently asserted its claim over Taiwan, viewing it as part of its territory under the “One-China Policy.” In contrast, Taiwan embraced democratic elections in 1996, and a majority of its population has since expressed a desire for independence rather than reunification with mainland China (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Taiwan, 2024). This has created hurdles for the international recognition of Taiwan.  The United States, initially acknowledging Taiwan as China's legitimate government, shifted in 1979 to formal diplomatic ties with China while maintaining unofficial relations with Taiwan. Similarly, the UN General Assembly, recognizing Taiwan as China's legitimate representative, passed Resolution 2758 in 1971, acknowledging China as the sole representative and expelling Taiwan (Lawrence, 2024). Presently, only 13 countries globally recognise Taiwan’s independence from China (Wisevoter, 2024). 


The historical context lays the foundation for understanding the escalating cross-strait tensions. Former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou was the last to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, representing the final instance of a president supporting the “One-China Policy” (Grossman & Alexander, 2020). Since then, the DPP has refused to recognise the consensus, leading to noticeable dissatisfaction in Beijing. Despite China's professed commitment to peaceful reunification, it has increasingly resorted to military intimidation, including air incursions, threatening propaganda, and simulated attack exercises on Taiwan (US State Gov, 2021). As the likelihood of peacefully gaining control of Taiwan diminishes, given the increasing Taiwanese identity and declining interest in unification with the PRC, China may find itself backed into a corner fearing the permanent loss of the island and therefore resort to force in order to achieve its political objectives—or not (BBC, 2024). 


Election Study Center, National Chengchi University via BBC


The Future of Cross-Strait Relations

Lai's election marks a memorable moment in cross-Strait relations, as Taiwanese voters dismiss warnings from the KMT and Beijing. However, despite labelling Lai as a "dangerous separatist" and "a threat to peace," Beijing's initial response to the election has been relatively restrained (COG, 2024). A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasised that the election “will not change the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China and there is only one China in the world”. This rhetoric has been a common refrain for China, tactfully avoiding overt displays of frustration and, most importantly, refraining from revealing its next move. Hence, for now, China is likely to uphold its pre-election positions, maintaining economic, military, and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan in the foreseeable future (Sacks, 2024). 


However, experts in the field are currently deliberating on China's next move, with some already discussing various escalation scenarios, while others maintain the stance that China currently has too much to lose by engaging in an invasion. The primary argues that an all-out military conflict is unlikely. Instead, analysts suggest that China would use various non-military coercion tactics, including economic, political, and technological methods, as well as naval blockades, to achieve (forced) unification with Taiwan, possibly prompting the United States to escalate. A 2022 RAND report outlines a "coercive quarantine" scenario, where China takes control of Taiwan's sea and air borders but refrains from directly attacking its economic infrastructure (Martin et al., 2022). 


The opposing view asserts that arguments for escalation often overlook President Xi Jinping's risk/gain assessment. The proposed blockade, described above, would possibly be the most intricate military operation in modern history, not to mention that the PLA hasn't participated in a major war for seven decades. Doubts arise regarding its readiness for an invasion, particularly with the potential involvement of the US. But most prominent is the argument that Xi doesn't urgently need immediate control of Taiwan, considering the permanent loss being unaffordable. Some argue that recent election results actually provide reassurance for Xi, with Lai securing the presidency with less than 50% of the vote—the lowest since 2000—and his party losing control of Taiwan's legislature. This situation enables Beijing to assert that peaceful unification is still attainable, emphasising that Lai does not represent the will of the Taiwanese people (Kim, 2024).


The U.S.-China-Taiwan Triangle

The United States and China share one of the world’s most important and complex bilateral relationships. In 1979, the U.S. established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC, severing ties with the ROC. However, despite lacking formal diplomatic ties, Taiwan remains an indispensable partner for the U.S. Its strategic location within the "first island chain" in East Asia plays a crucial role in regional stability, contributing to a power balance that counters China's dominance and the potential emergence of a singular dominant force in the region. In addition, its advanced technology sector, particularly in semiconductors, makes Taiwan a global technology hub, providing the U.S. with essential access to cutting-edge technology for global competitiveness (Maizland & Sacks, 2023). Bilateral ties deepened in 2022 with significant trade initiatives and expanded security collaboration (Yuan, 2023). Maintaining its policy of strategic ambiguity, the U.S. has long sought to strike a delicate balance between supporting Taiwan and avoiding conflict with China. 


China has consistently opposed U.S. engagement with Taiwan, asserting that the U.S. is "playing with fire" regarding its Taiwan policy (Aljazeera, 2022). They made this stance particularly evident following Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August 2022, China launched joint military exercises around the island and suspended eight official military dialogue channels with the US (Haenle & Sher, 2022). Nevertheless, following the 2024 election, the Biden administration restated its opposition to external interference in Taiwan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated President Lai, affirming a robust partnership and the U.S. commitment to cross-Strait peace and stability (AIT, 2024). In response to Blinken's congratulations, the PRC deemed the US "gravely wrong" (Cursino & Bicker, 2024).


However, this has been a recurring rhetoric from China, and while Beijing is unlikely to deviate from its current approach toward Taiwan, leaders in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington all share a common lack of interest in the uncontrolled escalation of tensions.

China's desire for control over Taiwan is countered by the PRC's concerns about preserving its political monopoly and authority, extending beyond a costly war with the United States that is far from a guaranteed victory. The real danger for Taiwan could, instead, be determined by the outcome of the November presidential election in the United States. If former President Trump, who has criticised Taiwan for ruining the US’ semiconductor industry and raised doubts about the advantages of defending Taiwan, were to win, Xi might perceive that he can dismiss the possibility of U.S. intervention. That might lead to instability in the Taiwan Strait (Sacks et al., 2024).


Conclusion

The outcome of Taiwan's election might not significantly alter Xi's strategic calculations. As the international community navigates the situation, analysts present a spectrum of possibilities. One perspective suggests that Beijing, running out of time and losing soft power, may feel compelled to take action in pursuit of Taiwan's reunification. On the other hand, opposing views argue that China currently has too much at stake to risk escalating tensions with the U.S. and its allies. The inherent uncertainty prevails, leaving the question of invasion unanswered. If China were to proceed with an invasion, the element of surprise may be in their best interest, like a game of chess where the end goal is clear, but the next move is yet to be revealed.



This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

References

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