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Taiwanese Election Conundrum- Swaying fate of the Island

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Tsai Ing-wen Campaign Poster | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The historical tapestry of China-Taiwan relations has been woven with intricacies, marked by the enduring legacy of the Chinese Civil War. Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland in 1949, the Republic of China (ROC) found refuge in Taiwan, claiming sovereignty over all of China. The subsequent decades witnessed the ROC's diminishing international recognition, as the PRC's "One-China" principle became a diplomatic cornerstone. The 1980s brought a thaw in relations, with Taiwan's shift toward economic development and political reforms. Democratization in the 1990s set the stage for the "Two-Party Consensus," acknowledging the "One-China" principle with varying interpretations. Tensions flared in the mid-1990s during the Taiwan Strait crises, and subsequent years saw economic ties blossom despite political nuances.


The 2008-2016 period under President Ma Ying-jeou witnessed improved cross-strait relations, marked by direct flights, and increased economic cooperation. However, the political landscape shifted again with Tsai Ing-wen's presidency in 2016, leading to a more nuanced approach and heightened tensions. Recent years have seen increased diplomatic pressure from the PRC, seeking to isolate Taiwan internationally, while Taiwan endeavours to strengthen global ties. The ebb and flow of China-Taiwan relations continue to shape regional geopolitics, making it a compelling narrative in the broader East Asian context.


The upcoming elections in Taiwan in January 2024 are poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the future trajectory of the island. The political landscape in Taiwan is marked by complex dynamics, and the external influences, particularly from China and the United States, play a crucial role in shaping the political landscape.


The question of Taiwan holds profound implications for China on multiple fronts. At the core of China's national interests, Taiwan is intricately tied to the country's identity and historical narrative, with Beijing considering it an inseparable part of its territory. The resolution of the Taiwan issue is seen as pivotal to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, reflecting its ability to safeguard territorial integrity. Domestically, Taiwan serves as a potent source of nationalism, influencing public sentiment and, consequently, domestic politics. On the geopolitical stage, China views Taiwan as crucial for regional influence and aims to strengthen its maritime presence in the Asia-Pacific through reunification. The Taiwan question also shapes China's foreign relations, leading to diplomatic pressure against any official recognition of Taiwan as a separate state. Despite political tensions, economic interdependence remains substantial, with Taiwan being a significant trading partner and source of investment for China. Moreover, the Taiwan issue heavily influences China's military modernization, with strategic planning geared towards deterring foreign intervention. As the situation unfolds, the status of Taiwan will continue to be a pivotal factor shaping China's actions and its position in the global arena.


China's longstanding claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and its preference for a reunification agenda significantly influences its approach to Taiwan's elections. The Chinese government has been accused repeatedly of meddling through various means, including disinformation campaigns, economic coercion, cyber activities and more recently intimidating by military means. The goal appears to be shaping the political narrative in a manner favourable to candidates or policies perceived as aligning with Beijing's interests. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is currently in power in Taiwan, and the government have said time and time again that China is attempting to sway the results of the election in favour of Beijing, whether through military action or by influencing Taiwanese politicians.


Throughout the previous four years, Taiwan has complained about frequent military exercises near the island by China, which it alleges is an attempt to bolster its claims to sovereignty. The Taiwanese defence ministry announced recently that it had seen nine Chinese military aircraft cross the Taiwan Strait's delicate median line during the preceding twenty-four hours. Though they have not entered Taiwan's airspace, China's air force now routinely sends its planes across the line that once served as an unofficial border between the two.


In an effort to counterbalance China's influence in the area, the US supports Taiwan through diplomatic support, increased military cooperation, or public statements reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Taiwan's security and democracy. The U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait and may seek to bolster Taiwan's ability to resist external pressures. For example, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency said the recent $300 million sale of equipment to help maintain Taiwan's tactical information systems was for follow-on life cycle support to maintain Taiwan's Command, Control, Communications and Computers, or C4, capabilities. The United States is bound by the law to provide Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, with the means to defend itself. Arms sales have become a frequent source of tension between Washington and Beijing.


The outcome of the 2024 elections will significantly shape Taiwan's trajectory, affecting its domestic policies, cross-strait relations, and international standing. If a candidate or party perceived as favouring closer ties with China prevails, it could have implications for Taiwan's autonomy and influence on the global stage. Conversely, a victory for candidates advocating for maintaining the status quo or bolstering Taiwan's independence could further strain relations with Beijing but strengthen ties with democratic allies, including the United States.


The alleged meddling by both China and the U.S. raises concerns about the integrity of Taiwan's democratic processes and its own sovereignty. Taiwan's approach has involved carefully balancing its relationship with both China and the United States, emphasising pragmatism, flexibility, and proactive engagement. By doing so, Taiwan aims to safeguard its autonomy, promote regional stability, and contribute constructively to the broader international community. Taiwan's gesture of offering condolences and assistance to China in the aftermath of the earthquake on the northern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau this week is consistent with its broader approach of pragmatic diplomacy and constructive engagement.


Given the complex geopolitical context and the historically sensitive nature of Taiwan-China relations, the upcoming elections in January 2024 will be closely watched by the international community. The choices made by the Taiwanese electorate will not only determine the island's immediate political direction but also have broader implications for regional stability and the evolving dynamics between Taiwan and mainland China. As Taiwan navigates these challenges, the democratic process will serve as a fundamental mechanism for expressing the will of the people and shaping the island's destiny in the years to come.

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