In the heart of escalating tensions between Taiwan and China, the world watched with bated breath as the island nation cast its votes for a new president on January 13, 2024. At the forefront of this historic moment stood the newly elected Lai Ching-te and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose third victory marked a pivotal juncture in the ongoing struggle between autonomy and allegiance, peace and conflict. The elections showed the island’s stance on Chinese demands, as well as its aspirations for its place in the global sphere. As the stakes were raised yet again, the implications were felt far beyond the island’s shores.

The DPP stands on the center-left part of the political spectrum, with its former president, Tsai Ing-wen advocating for Taiwanese independence. Mr Lai is set to follow in her footsteps, refusing to proclaim Taiwan as part of China,  a stance that Beijing strongly disapproves of. The relationship between China and Taiwan is long and troubled. Chinese state sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, destined to be united with the mainland as part of the “One China” policy. The concept of “One China” includes multiple facets, the most relevant of them being that there is only one China in the world, that Taiwan is a part of China, and that the only legal government of China is “the People’s Republic of China” (PRC). The idea was first introduced after the end of the Chinese Civil War, in 1949.

On the other hand, Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign state, with an independent government and democratic processes. This presents a major source of conflict, as the geopolitical and economic value of Taiwan is crucial for China. The island is a formidable producer of electronics in the global markets and holds a strategic position in the “first island chain”. It would be a major win for China, as it would allow Beijing to project more power to the Western front through the South China Sea. While the relationship between the countries has long been tense, China has mostly used soft power to “win back” the people of Taiwan. However, as it becomes more and more clear that the Taiwanese will not submit willingly, Beijing has resorted to harsher tactics, even threatening war.

Knowing the historical background between the two, it becomes evident that Taiwanese elections, and their representatives, have a great impact on the island’s external policy and diplomatic ties with China and the rest of the world. The choice is simple, either for or against. And Taiwan’s decision is clear. The victory of Lai Ching-te and the DPP shows that the Taiwanese people want independence or, at the very least, do not identify as Chinese. Οther two parties, the “Kuomintang”, led by Hou Yu-ih, and the “Taiwan People’s Party” led by Ko Wen-je, hold a significantly more appeasing stance when it comes to Chinese aggression. The Kuomintang is sometimes viewed as pro-Chinese, promoting a peaceful resolution of the conflict. At the same time, the TPP claims to offer a “third solution”, something between opposing China and fully submitting to it.

Taiwan uses a “first-past-the-post” system, meaning that voters vote directly for the candidate they prefer and whoever amasses the most votes wins. On that note, it is important to mention that Lai Ching-te received 40% of the total vote, while his opponents, Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je received 33.5 and 26.5% respectively. Αdditionally, the Democratic Populist Party lost its legislative majority. The latter, however, doesn’t mean that Taiwanese opinion is straying from independence. The vote illustrates the dilemma of Taiwanese society.

At the same time, the election of President Lai doesn’t necessarily mean war with China. What it is, yet another blow to the increasingly hostile relations between the two countries. Many Chinese officials publicly denounced Lai Ching-te, calling him a “dangerous separatist” and warning against his election. After repeated warnings from China about what would ensue from a win by Mr Lai, it becomes clear that Taiwan is sending a message of defiance against Beijing’s wishes.

On a global scale, the world seems conflicted by the results. While the US and other countries have significant interests in the region, no one seems ready for a full-blown escalation. China is adamant about Taiwan’s connection to the mainland and refuses to accept the election as the manifestation of the will of the Taiwanese people. To support that view, Chinese military exercises on the Taiwan Strait have soared over the last few years and Beijing has made ominous statements about the use of force, should there be a need for it.

At this stage, Taiwan is not fit to stand against China, at least not without help from the United States. The island’s strategic position on one of the global shipping routes between Asia, Europe, and the US brings many players forward, each wishing for a different outcome. The US, more so in the last few years, has taken on a more active role in promoting Taiwanese independence, something that further triggers unrest from the Chinese front. In the event of an unprovoked attack by China, the US has formally pledged its support to Taiwan.

Under these volatile circumstances, the recent elections highlight a growing danger, as the newly elected government will have to deal with an ever-demanding China. Given both parties’ refusal to concede to the other’s demands, a strong pro-independence policy could mean significant trouble for Taiwan, whose chance of a peaceful resolution is slipping further and further away.

What remains to be seen is how Mr. Lai plans on navigating his term and the country’s external relations. The previous president’s attempts to foster cross-strait dialogue, which China has continuously rejected, have maintained peace over the years, but Chinese patience is waning. The dream of “One China” is not one to be abandoned easily. China is used to getting what it wants and it’s amassing the means to do so. Taiwan has become a crucial post to both China and the US, with its geographical importance and its niche market. The loss of the island would be detrimental to Chinese interests as it would leave it vulnerable to further Western expansion.

In this political chessboard, Taiwan is a decisive piece. Both sides are weary of its actions, as they can affect the universal balance of power. The elections were a small win for democracy and the West, but the world isn’t ready to embrace an independent Taiwan. The implications of severed ties with China, as well as the open hostility, would significantly affect trade and relations in the South China Sea. Ultimately, Taiwan’s woes continue, even as it steps into a new era. The dilemma between war and peace isn’t one that’s easily solved, even with the appeal of independence standing in the middle.

Author: Έλλη Ματθαίαδη


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