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Taiwan is about to choose its new president. What’s at stake and how might China respond?

Supporters of Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), cheer during a campaign rally in Keelung on January 8, 2024.I-Hwa Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

All eyes will be on Taiwan this Saturday as voters choose a new leader under the shadow of an increasingly assertive China that has spent the past eight years ramping up its threats toward the self-ruled island.

The world will be watching to see not only who wins the election, but how democratic Taiwan’s authoritarian neighbor will respond. There, Xi Jinping – China’s most powerful leader in a generation – has called Taiwan’s unification with the mainland “a historical inevitability,” to be achieved by force if necessary.

The last time Taiwan had a change of government – when the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016 – Beijing cut off most communications with Taipei and significantly increased economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the island in the ensuing years, turning the Taiwan Strait into one of the world’s major geopolitical flash points.

China’s ruling Communist Party views Taiwan as part of its territory, despite having never controlled it. While successive Chinese Communist leaders have vowed to eventually achieve “reunification,” Xi has repeatedly said the Taiwan issue “should not be passed down generation after generation,” linking the mission to his mid-century goal of “national rejuvenation.”

“This election marks a change in leadership at a moment when cross-strait tensions are high, and preserving stability has become more of a challenge,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“A conflict involving Taiwan is unlikely in the near term. But if one were to break out, the ramifications would be globally felt,” Hsiao said.

All three candidates are selling themselves as the best choice for avoiding that doomsday scenario, pledging to maintain peace and the status quo – which polls have consistently shown is what most people in Taiwan want.

But the three men hold very different visions for how to achieve that goal. They all cite the need to boost Taiwan’s defense capabilities to deter China’s aggression but disagree on their policy priorities, particularly how to deal with Beijing.

Current DPP Vice President Lai Ching-te emphasizes bolstering Taiwan’s ties with like-minded democratic partners, such as the United States and Japan, while maintaining his administration’s stance that Tawain is already a de facto sovereign nation – a view Beijing deems unacceptable.

Hou Yu-ih, from the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), places more weight on resuming dialogue and deescalating tension with China.

Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), meanwhile, has called for a more “pragmatic” approach to seek a “new way out in the US-China rivalry,” though he has been less clear about what that means in practice.

Beijing’s response may vary depending on the election results, but experts say tension could rise further down the road regardless of who takes office, as China’s “reunification” plan has become a nonstarter for the vast majority of Taiwan’s 24 million people.

In addition to the threat from Beijing, livelihood issues such as low wages, high property prices and Taiwan’s slowly growing economy are expected be key factors in how they vote.

Taiwan’s Vice President and presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te speaks during a campaign rally in Keelung on January 8, 2024.I-Hwa Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

Immediate pressure

China has made no secret of its preference in the tight race, framing the election as a choice between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.”

Beijing openly loathes the DPP and Lai, who once described himself as “a practical worker for Taiwan independence.” Although he has moderated his position to favor the status quo, Beijing has continued to denounce him as a dangerous separatist.

On Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned Taiwan’s voters to “recognize the extreme danger of Lai Ching-te’s triggering of cross-strait confrontation and conflict,” and “to make the right choice at the crossroads of cross-strait relations.”

A victory by Lai, who had been leading in the polls by a small margin, could be quickly met with an increase in economic or military pressure by China.

“In the near term, we’re likely to see Beijing trying to use maximum pressure to set the terms for the next four years of cross-strait negotiations,” said Wen-ti Sung, a Taiwan-based fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

It could include “intense diplomatic rhetoric that criticizes the next DPP administration, economic sanctions against targeted exports, as well as greater use of military tools in gray-zone areas as a way to register Beijing’s dissatisfaction,” he said.

“Grey zone” tactics refers to aggressive state actions that stop short of open warfare, something China has used increasingly in recent years in both the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.

China could also save a more forceful response for a later date, if a victorious Lai delivers an inauguration speech in May that doesn’t meet Beijing’s demands, according to Hsiao.

The world will be watching the level of escalation.

In August 2022, China staged massive war games around Taiwan to show its displeasure with then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. Beijing fired missiles into waters surrounding the island and simulated a blockade with fighter jets and warships, in its largest show of force in years.

Taiwan’s security officials said Thursday they don’t expect large-scale military actions from China right after the election, citing unsuitable winter weather conditions, troubles in the Chinese economy, and efforts by Beijing and Washington to stabilize ties following a bilateral summit in November.

If Lai wins, it will be the first time in Taiwan’s democratic history for a political party to be elected to a third term in power – and serve as a potent sign that China’s strongarm tactics under Xi are not working to persuade Taiwanese voters to abandon the DPP.

But analysts say the DPP is less likely to secure a majority in the new legislature, which will also be elected Saturday, and that could lead to significant deadlocks in policy making, especially on contentious issues.

“The check that the Legislative Yuan would likely impose on a new DPP presidency should offer some degree of reassurance to Beijing on what the Lai administration can do,” Hsiao said.

Hou Yu-ih, the presidential candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT), speaks to international journalists at a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan on January 11, 2024.Wiktor Dabkowski/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Tension down the road

Beijing’s preferred candidate is Hou from the KMT, which traditionally favors closer ties with China.

Hou has blamed the DPP for provoking China and vowed to restart dialogue and repair economic ties with Beijing.

He has pledged to revive a controversial trade deal with China, which sparked huge student-led protests in 2014 during the previous KMT administration.

His election could lead to a temporary ease in tensions, but experts say it won’t last.

“After an initial period where relations improve, Beijing will still try to seek more progress in the relationship – that could be in the form of new economic agreements or more political accommodation from a KMT government,” Hsiao said.

“And at that point, I think a Hou administration would have a lot of difficulty selling that to Taiwanese voters. And that may well see tensions rise again.”

While Hou has clearly opposed Taiwan independence, he has also rejected the “one country, two systems” model proposed by China for unification. That offer has lost all appeal in Taiwan after Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, which former colonial ruler Britain handed over to China in 1997 under the same framework.

“Similar to mainland China and the US, Taiwan must also shoulder responsibility and walk its own path, so as to bring about peace and stability in the region,” Hou said Thursday in response to a question from CNN.

He described his stance of rejecting both Taiwan independence and Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model as “the ‘middle way’ Taiwan should take.”

Even if Hou wins, cross-strait relations are unlikely to return to their friendlier years under former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, when the KMT was last in power, experts say.

Much has changed since the Ma years.

Amid Chinese threats, Taiwan’s public has shifted determinedly away from China. Less than 10% now support an immediate or eventual unification, and less than 3% identify primarily as Chinese. The geopolitical backdrop has also changed dramatically, with China and the US locked in an escalating strategic competition.

Ko Wen-je, the presidential candidate of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), waves to supporters during a campaign event ahead of the election in Taipei, Taiwan on January 11, 2024.Ann Wang/Reuters

Ko from the TPP, meanwhile, has been advocating another “middle way” – painting himself as a political outsider and sensible alternative to the two established parties.

As the former mayor of Taipei, Ko promoted local ties with China, especially the city of Shanghai, and stated “two sides of the Strait are one family.”

But Ko is a “new face” to the US-China great power competition, Sung noted.

Were he to win the presidency, it would take Taiwan’s relations with both China and the wider world into uncharted waters.

“Ko has a record of strategic ambiguity for his US-China policy, that will translate into goodwill from both sides,” Sung said.

“Both Beijing and Washington may give the next Ko Wen-je administration an initial grace period where they’re giving it significant benefit of the doubt. Whatever happens from there is up to how the Ko administration handles its own foreign policy and cross-strait policy.”

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