Leaning towards China or the West? Key elections in Taiwan have faced manipulative interference from China

Bianka Niňajová

On Saturday, January 13, the people of Taiwan elected a new president, vice president, and representatives of the parliament. The main rivals were the more conservative Kuomintang (KMT), which supports improved relations with China, and the centre-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The latter has been in power continuously for the last eight years and has adopted a more assertive stance towards China, promoting the idea of a more independent and cooperative policy with the US in the foreign sphere.  The leader in the presidential election polls was the DPP candidate Lai Ching-te, also known as Wiliam Lai, who will eventually become Taiwan’s new President. He has served as vice president alongside President Tsai Ing-wen for the last four years. Lai thus represents a guarantee of continuity in the island’s current policy, which should be based on building stronger relations, especially with democratic countries led by the USA, and diversifying trade. The defeated opposition candidate for the KMT was Hou You-yi, who argued that strengthening economic ties with China was the best way to preserve peace. But Lai’s victory was complicated by the fact that his DPP did not win a majority in the parliamentary elections and will therefore have to look for a coalition partner, for example, in the form of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which hovers somewhere between the KMT and the DPP on the political spectrum and emphasises the need to maintain balanced relations with both the US and China.

The Pacific Ocean island, home to 23.5 million people, is known for its contentious political status. Although Taiwan has been de facto independent since the 1940s, according to Chinese rhetoric, it is merely a breakaway province that is supposed to be under Beijing’s exclusive control. However, the island, located more than 150 kilometres from the Chinese mainland, identifies itself as an independent state with its own constitution and democratically elected representatives. However, China has recently spoken more forcefully about its claim to Taiwan’s territory. The outcome of the elections could thus have a major impact on security in the Asia-Pacific region. Any escalation in relations between China and Taiwan risks escalating the conflict to global proportions. Indeed, the region also represents an important zone of influence for the United States, which has naval and air bases spread from Australia to Japan. The new Taiwanese President will thus also play a key role in further shaping relations between Taiwan, Beijing, and Washington.

The issue of the relationship between Taiwan and China has strongly dominated the entire pre-election period. Both Beijing and the KMT have often referred to this election as a choice between war and peace. Hou emphasised in his campaign that a vote for the DPP meant “sending all the people to the battlefield” because a Lai victory would be the beginning of war with China. The reason for Taiwan’s currently stagnant economy, according to the KMT, is precisely because of the lack of a strong relationship with China. Taiwan’s exports of goods to China have declined in recent years, yet China remains Taiwan’s main and most important trading partner. According to Taiwanese government data, trade between the two countries was valued at $205.11 billion in 2022.

Beijing is well aware of its economic position in Taiwan and has long used its power to pursue its own interests. In 2019, Beijing banned its tourists from visiting Taiwan. Later, in 2021, it began fining Taiwanese companies operating in China and banned fruit or fish imports from the island. Economic pressure has escalated, especially during the election campaign. China has announced a major investigation into Taiwan’s trade practices. In December, Beijing ruled that Taiwan had unfairly imposed trade barriers on more than 2,000 Chinese products. In response to what China said was a violation of the trade agreement, the Chinese government suspended tax breaks on imports of 12 chemicals from Taiwan. China used these trade tactics to increase Taiwanese voters’ distrust of the pro-Western DPP in the hope that voters would lean toward the KMT, which has friendly relations with China.

At the same time, Taiwan’s defence ministry recently warned of Chinese balloons spotted over the island just days before a crucial election was due. According to the ministry’s data, China has already launched nearly 20 balloons flying at high altitudes since last December. The balloons have crossed the central line of the Taiwan Strait, with many flying over Taiwan itself, but in the past week, authorities have also recorded three balloons flying over important military bases. While Taipei points to threats to civil aviation security, China rejects any suggestion of threats to international civil aviation. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the activities were in no way related to China’s foreign affairs.

Chinese balloons began to attract attention as early as February 2023, when the US shot down a balloon that was flying through airspace over US territorial waters. At the time, the Pentagon talked about a spy balloon that could gather intelligence. Authorities in Beijing have denied using the balloons for espionage purposes and said it was just a weather balloon that had deviated from its flight path. The current increased presence of balloons, Chinese warplanes, reconnaissance drones, and naval ships around Taiwan’s territory has worried global experts and Taiwanese authorities. Taipei accused Beijing of waging psychological warfare and trying to influence the outcome of Saturday’s election by using military threats and diplomatic pressure, but especially by spreading disinformation and deepfake posts.

For now, however, China’s manipulative tactics have not been enough to sway Taiwanese voters. The published election results showed a clear victory for the Democratic candidate, William Lai, who won 40% of the vote. Assumptions that the DPP candidate’s victory would lead to increasing tensions between the island and mainland China, Lai himself tried to calm down in his first address to the citizens. Lai spoke of cooperation between Taiwan and China, which should be based on dignity and equality. He also stressed the preservation of peace in the region. However, Beijing’s rejection of the election winner suggests that the future development of relations is still in doubt. If China decided to take stricter action against Taiwan, the island and the entire global economy would suffer. Almost half of the world’s container ships pass through the Taiwan Strait every year, an important hub for international trade. Taiwan is also a major producer of semiconductors, which in today’s modern world are used in cars, telephones, and refrigerators. Any disruption to production and world supplies would paralyse the entire global market.

Despite the importance of the different attitudes of both parties and their candidates towards Beijing, polls have long indicated that the outcome of the elections will largely be decided by common problems of the population, such as inflation, price increases, unaffordable housing and energy security. However, addressing domestic and foreign issues may be complicated because the winning party in the presidential election does not have a majority in parliament. It even looks like no political party has won a parliamentary majority in these elections. However, experts and analysts agree that a government with parties sharing legislative and executive power may be the best solution for Taiwan. A balance of parties in governance could help the country restart its economy while maintaining peaceful relations with China. However, the real geopolitical impact of the January elections in Taiwan will not be seen until later. The United States will also elect its new leadership in 2024. The situation may yet be influenced to a large extent by the eventual victory of US Republican Donald Trump.

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