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Taiwan’s Elections and Implications for US-China Relations

In this episode of Contours, host Eugene Chausovsky discusses the landscape and implications of the 2024 Taiwanese elections with expert Steven Wang.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Hello, everyone. And thank you for joining us for the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy Contours Podcast series. I’m your guest host today, Eugene Chausovsky, and I’ll be talking to Kai-Chun (Steven) Wang about the upcoming elections in Taiwan and their implications for U.S.-China relations in the coming year. Steven is a Policy Research Fellow for the Johns Hopkins University Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, and Steven has also worked in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan as a foreign policy adviser to a former co-chair of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee.

So Taiwan will be holding presidential and legislative elections on January 13th, and these elections could have major ramifications on cross-state relations between Taiwan and China, as well as the broader great-power competition between the US and China. So Steven, could you please start us off by giving us an overview of the Taiwanese political landscape heading into the elections in January?

Kai-Chun (Steven) Wang:

No problem, Eugene, and thank you so much for your kind introduction. Taiwan’s upcoming 2024 election is not only critical for Taiwan itself, but it’s also for the broader security situation in East Asia as well as the prospect of the still-tense competitive U.S.-China relations.

The election priority list, particularly in the 2022 local election in Taiwan, we saw the main opposition party, the KMT, gain around 14 cities and counties out of 22 in Taiwan. And the DPP kept five, and the newly formed TPP in 2019 led by the former mayor of Taipei, won two. One of them is Hsinchu city, which is the headquarter and some of the core operations of the TSMC, with also one independent county that is KMT-leaning. So technically, leading up to the 2024 election, we are looking at a map where the Pan-Blue, which is KMT’s main party color, has around 15 cities and counties, while the DPP, or also knowing Taiwan as a Pan-Green party faction, suffered its biggest local election loss since the founding of the party in 1986. And before that, their worst performance was actually in 2018 with six cities and counties instead of five.

So the governing party, the DPP, Democratic Progressive Party, named the incumbent Vice President William Lai as its candidate. And he picked with the former Republic of China, Taiwan, a representative to the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, as his running mate. On the other hand, you have the opposition party, the main one, KMT, nominated the Mayor of New Taipei City and a former Chief of Police, Hou Yu-hi. He paired with TV celebrity and a former legislator as well as a former Minister of Environmental Protection Agency, Jaw Shau-kong, as his running mate. As for the TPP, the TPP Chairman himself, the former mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, decided to pick a incumbent legislator, albeit she is a very fresh politician, and she has some very formidable and also influential commercial background, Cynthia Wu, to be his running mate.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Great. Thanks so much, Steven. So I’m curious, how would you assess the different outcomes? Let’s say if we compare the victory of the DPP, the ruling party, versus the KMT, the opposition party, which you’ve outlined. How would that impact Taiwan’s overall defense and foreign policies moving into next year? So basically, maybe looking at some of the main differences between the two parties, depending on who would win, and what also would be the commonalities between victory for either party.

Kai-Chun (Steven) Wang:

Oh, yes. Yeah, that is a question I think a lot of people in Taiwan are also anticipating. So when it comes to some of the core aspects of, so-called the basis of interaction for the DPP and the KMT regarding mainland China, there are a lot of differences.

So I think number one, DPP has been generally regarded also amongst themselves in Taiwan as a party that pursues the ultimate formation or the form of Taiwan as a political entity on the international stage, it should be an independent country with the name Taiwan. But currently, their position is basically referring to Taiwan as the Republic of China, Taiwan. So for the DPP, they stress the importance of interacting with the CCP based on the principles of sovereignty, equality, and dignity. The DPP also does not recognize the 1992 Consensus, which is a meeting between the CCP and the then-KMT government official in Hong Kong. There is a very interesting but also ambiguous agreement on the so-called One China concept between the cross straits.

So the DDP doesn’t recognize that, but you do have the incumbent President, Tsai Ing-wen, she did recognize there is a historical fact that a two parties, two parties basically means Chinese and Taiwanese officials in Hong Kong in the year 1992. So she’s trying her very best to kind of draw a middle ground between pacifying the more Taiwan independence-leaning faction, the party, while trying to maintain a middle ground as well. But you also have the current candidate, William Lai, he stressed also the importance of conducting cross-race relations based on the constitution of the Republic of China, particularly on the part about regulations pertaining to the people of mainland China. I think there’s a law on that.

KMT, on the other hand, interacts with the CCP, or mainland China, based on the so-called Constitutional ’92 and One China separate interpretation. So KMT does stress that there is One China, and that China is the Republic of China instead of the PRC on the other side. KMT also opens to interact with the CCP based on the principles of equality, dignity, and the respect for the Republic of China. The interesting part about KMT is that during their interactions, they do not recognize the sovereignty of the PRC, but they also do not deny the jurisdiction of the PRC on the mainland.

So when it comes to the result of the election, I think it is an open secret on all three sides, so three sides, we’re talking about Beijing, Washington, and Taipei, that the CCP has prepared different playbooks for whatever results that is coming in. So if we’re looking at a DPP victory in the presidential election, there will be most likely out of all the other potential results, some form of major destabilizing actions from China either during the transition period from January to May. Taiwan has a very long power transition period. The election ends on Jan 13, and the transition completes on May 20th.

Or the CCP could, immediately after the new government swears in, take aggressive actions. But these actions can range from economic, diplomatic, or the more conventionally known military actions. For example, the PRC has recently announced some major conclusions on their investigation called Unfair Trade Practices Pertaining to ECFA, Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement that was signed between Taiwan and China in the year 2010, which can impact a lot of businesses on Taiwan. It also impacts a lot of the products that will be exported to mainland China.

As for dealing with a potential KMT victory, it is likely that PRC will continue to maintain military pressure on Taiwan, but a certain escalation seems unlikely. What is even more likely is that the PRC will definitely demand some preconditions for the restoration of a warmer cross-strait relation.

It is likely that China will basically demand some sort of internal reforms within the legal structures of Taiwan to, for example, open up more Chinese investments in Taiwan, demanding a more equal treatment when it comes to trade practices, and also perhaps try to incentivize KMT leadership into a deeper political conversation, which the KMT leadership at this point, as the candidate, Hou Yu-hi, himself has stated in a Bloomberg interview, I think was around September, that this is not the time for a leadership meeting between the two sides. But also at the same time, Beijing is needed to show more goodwill to the people of Taiwan before any substantial or new approach can happen between the two. But it’s likely that the PRC will try to stress that, “One of your platform that leading up to your victory is your promise of improving relationship with mainland China.” And PRC might actually set some preconditions to it.

So finally, the final part, the United States will probably be in the difficult position to kind of respond to a aggressive Chinese behavior after the 2024 election. Either is because of you can say some domestic fatigue when it comes to demonstrating more military posture externally, or that President Biden or the current Democratic government what might be preferred a more stabilized cross-race relations. So there are definitely potential recall or a reenactment of a 2000-2008 scenario, where you do have Washington also putting pressure on Taipei in trying to stabilize relationship with the mainland.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Thanks very much, Steven. So you’ve already kind of touched on this, on my next question, in your previous response, in terms of assessing the different reactions of the PRC to a DPP versus KMT victory in these elections. So maybe shifting focus a little bit in terms of looking at how this election could impact China’s broader relationship with the U.S., right? We saw recently Xi and Biden had a pretty significant sit-down prior to the COP28’s Global Energy Climate Summits. They agreed to relieve to a certain extent some tensions in some areas, but Taiwan was actually an area that was brought up that seems like it’s still going to be a major tension point between the two countries moving forward. So how do you see that impact specifically the elections on that broader U.S.-China relationship in the next year?

Kai-Chun (Steven) Wang:

So yeah. The Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco is definitely a interesting step towards a potential kind of stabilization of the relationship between the two powers. But there’s also a lot of caveats when the two sides are talking about Taiwan. So I think there are several points that needs to be made when the two sides are thinking about how the other side might actually decide to do on Taiwan after 2024.

The first one is the U.S. and China are still expecting to maintain competitive relationship in the foreseeable future. That is understandable, and it is very hard to kind of return from that direct course of direction. The U.S. also understands that its deterrence in East Asia remain somehow insufficient, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is right now a core national interest for the United States.

One of the reasons why you’re seeing a lot of force reposturing and also force reconstructions or redesign, I think it’s precisely because the U.S. understands that its deterrence posture needs to change in reaction to, I think, number one, the growth of the POA’s capacity around Taiwan and also number two, the level or the progress of Taiwan’s buildup of its deterrence. So the United States, on the third point, is they need a Taiwan that can maintain an improved deterrence against China and to maintain peace in the strait.

And the fourth point is China understands that. And China understands its window of opportunity in tilting regional balance is kind of closing. I would kind of irresponsibly use some figures just from some key documents and key statements of different analysts and officials. So still you do have some people in the United States and as well as in Taiwan that still believes that Xi Jinping expects the POA by 2027 to accumulate the initial capacity for a military mission on Taiwan.

But also at the same time, if you look at the end of some of the major U.S. force restructuring and redesign is on 2035, I think if I remember correctly, that is for the Army as well as the Marines. So China is looking at this window of 2027-2035 and sees that, “Okay, so this might be the point where Taiwan’s weapons are still not arriving from the United States, its government might still be in a very fragile state.” Because one of the interesting results and the most likely result in Taiwan’s election is the governing party is not going to get a sufficient mandate both in the presidential votes gain as well as the legislative one. So China understands that it has some sort of window of opportunity, and it probably needs to maximize whatever advantages they can get during that framework, during that timeframe.

The final point is China still prefers the path of peaceful unification with Taiwan. But if we see a politically more defiant Taiwan, it kind of provides China with more incentives to accelerate this economic and diplomatic isolation as well as giving China more excuses to escalate their military activities around Taiwan. So those are some of the potential changes and the potential thinking that U.S. and China will be having moving forward and beyond 2024.

Eugene Chausovsky:

So you talk about essentially China’s window of opportunity and then the U.S. deterrent strategy. I’m curious even beyond kind of that longer-term timeframe of 2027 and beyond, we have seen how the U.S. has become distracted in a way. There’s obviously the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which has had its ups and downs, more recently this the Israel-Gaza conflict. All of these have shown to be stretching to some extent U.S. bandwidth, perhaps not militarily, but certainly politically and economically. So I’m curious what your thoughts are from Taiwan’s perspective. Is there a concern for that? And how does that kind of factor into the broader strategic planning when it comes to China?

Kai-Chun (Steven) Wang:

Oh, yes, thank you. Yeah, that is a very important question indeed. From a perspective for Taiwan and I think more particularly my experience in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, kind of gives me this informed speculation that the decision-makers in Taiwan will be concerned about how U.S. is distracted, both in terms of resources and both in terms of spending their political capitals in helping Taiwan.

So number one, precisely like you had just mentioned, Eugene, is that some of the U.S. conventional munitions are being prioritized to either Ukraine or to the support of Israel. And so, those are some of the things that Taiwan would definitely be concerned about. Taiwan is, for example, but I don’t think the Taiwanese government is looking into this right now, but when it comes to conventional artillery munition, the United States we’re talking about like the 155 millimeter howitzer, for example. Ukraine by some rough assessment in pure defensive need, it probably needs around 6,000 to 8,000 shells per day. Well, the United States, before they ramped up their production on those conventional shells, they only produced 24,000 per month. And it takes a lot of years for the Europeans and the Americans to kind of ramp up that production to both satisfy their domestic stockpile as well as having spares to provide it to Ukraine. And now you have Israel who’s also using that munition in their conventional military operation. So that’s number one.

And in some of traditional munitions that Taiwan is getting from the United States, we’re talking about Javelin, we’re talking about the Harpoon missiles, for example. There is also a concern that U.S. must prioritize its homeland stockpile before they have spares to give to Taiwan.

And the second part is political. So the major showdown in the U.S. Congress has definitely reminded, I would say the United States allies including Taiwan, that when domestic political discussions were mixed into, I would say, I’ve got to be a little bit careful here, but when I say for example, the Republicans are trying to tie the border issue with the U.S. aide in Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, which they have every right to do so, and the border issue is definitely important for the American people. So when that happens, and I understand, in Taiwan we do have these kind of political strategic moves to force the other side into a negotiation. But throughout this process, it definitely makes Taiwan anxious about when will another appropriations or when will another bill on supporting the defense of Taiwan, accelerating the handover of Taiwan’s articles from the U.S. to Taiwan, when will that happen if the negotiation in the border issue or any other domestically linked issue are not resolved in the current polarized Capital Hill? So those are the two aspects that Taiwan is currently worried about from a potential policymaker’s perspective.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Understood. Well, yes. Thanks, Steven. This is certainly a really important issue, not only the elections themselves, but also all of the implications that you’ve outlined to track in the coming year and even well beyond that. So I just wanted to say thank you very much to Steven for providing your valuable insights, and thank you all for listening. You can find more analysis related to Taiwan and U.S.-China relations on our website at newlinesinstitute.org. Take care, and all the best in the new year.

Kai-Chun (Steven) Wang:

Thank you very much.

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