Taiwan approaches the pivotal presidential election scheduled for January 13, 2024; the significance of the outcome will be crucial in shaping the island's complex relationship with China. In November, the political landscape in Taiwan experienced a moment of collaboration as candidates from the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), Ko Wen-je, and the Kuomintang (KMT), Hou Yu-ih, initially announced a joint effort. However, the alliance, aimed at defeating the leading candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), quickly disintegrated due to the inability of the opposition parties to define the presidential and vice-presidential roles. Recent polls indicate a robust position for the KMT candidate, setting the stage for a potential notable showdown between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT.
As President Tsai concludes her constitutionally mandated two terms, a leadership change is inevitable. Tsai's presidency witnessed heightened tensions with China and reduced cross-strait dialogue, yet she remained cautious not to provoke Beijing publicly. The next president will navigate this period of uncertainty with the potential to reshape the established patterns.
What are the key issues to comprehensively understand the political landscape? Who are the candidates vying for the presidency, and what are their political stances? How do they view the relationships with the United States and China and the significance of the 1992 consensus? What do the polls indicate about both parliamentary and presidential elections? What is the significance of the 1992 consensus, and why does it matter in Taiwan's political context? Finally, what does each candidate have to offer if they win?
A concept that holds it together
The peaceful coexistence between Taiwan and China has primarily hinged on the willingness of both sides to maintain a flexible interpretation of the "one China" concept while characterizing their relationship. Despite the separate political existence of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) since 1949, these formulations have effectively allowed each side to uphold its perception of the respective sovereignty of the PRC and ROC.
Both major Taiwanese political parties, namely the KMT and DPP, consider the ROC a de facto sovereign state distinct from the PRC. Consequently, neither party adheres to Beijing's definition of the "one China" principle, which designates Taiwan as a province of China. Although the concept of "one China" is implied in Taiwan's constitution, it conveys that the ROC, not the PRC, represents China, encompassing mainland territory. The KMT supports this perspective of "one China," while the DPP regards it as a vestige of Taiwan's authoritarian past under KMT rule. The differing interpretations of Taiwan's relationship with the mainland have led to the KMT's willingness to make rhetorical references to "one China." At the same time, the DPP seeks to distance itself from the concept without entirely alienating Beijing. However, both parties condition their acknowledgement of "one China" on maintaining ambiguity about its precise meaning.
Lee Teng-Hui (4th President of the Republic of China, 1988-2000), center, arrives for a ceremony in Tokyo in 2007. Bloomberg/Haruyoshi Yamaguchi
In 1992, when negotiations between the ruling KMT and Beijing reached an impasse due to disagreements over the definition of "one China," both parties temporarily set aside the issue to focus on discussions related to practical matters. Taiwan's representatives affirmed that they both "adhered to the 'one China principle'" but held differing interpretations of what "one China" meant. In response, China's representatives stated that both sides "adhere to the 'one China' principle" and strive for national unification, emphasizing that cross-strait negotiations on general affairs would not delve into the meaning of "one China."
While Beijing never explicitly endorsed Taipei's interpretation of "one China," its decision to engage in practical cooperation in 1993 suggested a degree of tolerance, if not outright acceptance, for the coexistence of varying interpretations. This understanding was later termed the "1992 consensus" in 2000, and since then, both Beijing and the KMT have been regularly referencing it. From 2008 to 2016, when the KMT held the Taiwanese presidency, the "1992 consensus" served as the foundation for nearly two dozen cross-strait agreements.
Conversely, the DPP, established in 1986 through anti-KMT political movements, asserts that China and Taiwan are distinct entities, not integral components of a broader "one China" framework. From its inception, the party viewed the KMT's concept of the Republic of China, which binds Taiwan and China together, as an external imposition on a unique Taiwanese identity that had emerged during Japanese colonialism. Initially advocating outright independence and the dismantlement of the ROC in favour of a Republic of Taiwan, the DPP moderated its stance after unsuccessful election attempts. In May 1999, the party declared Taiwan as an existing sovereign state. By taking this position, the DPP avoided explicitly calling for formal independence, aligning itself with mainstream views that refrain from provoking China. For the DPP, even mere acknowledgement of a "one China" framework carries the risk of legitimizing the notion that Taiwan belongs to China, potentially providing a pretext for Beijing's annexation. The DPP rejects the 1992 consensus, contending that no true consensus was reached, as Beijing never explicitly accepted the KMT's proposition of differing interpretations, and no formal document was signed. Although averse to "one China," the DPP has occasionally indirectly acknowledged the framing. Therefore, the relationship between the DPP and Beijing has been much more contentious than that between the KMT and the PRC.
Probing the Status Quo
The elusive ambiguity inherent in the status quo has given the three parties leeway to vie for strategic positions. Over the past four decades, there have been instances when they took actions to influence the cross-strait dynamic in their favour, yet the status quo endured. Its resilience is partly attributed to the parties' demonstrated flexibility in preserving the status quo's underlying understandings.
During the 1995 Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the U.S., Lee emphasized Taiwan's distinct sovereign status, referring to it as a "country" or "nation" multiple times, a stance even the Clinton administration found provocative. In response, Beijing exhibited significant military strength, conducting three sets of exercises between July 1995 and March 1996, including testing short-range ballistic missiles near Taiwan. This display aimed to deter what Beijing perceived as an apparent attempt by Taipei, with Washington's support, to deviate from the "one China" framework. In retaliation, Clinton dispatched two U.S. aircraft carrier groups through the Taiwan Strait, a remarkable demonstration of U.S. power at the time.
Simultaneously, seeking a more stable relationship with China, the Clinton administration implemented measures to reassure Beijing about its unwavering commitment to the "One China" policy. During a visit to China in 1998, Clinton reiterated his administration's "three nos" policy, publicly stating that the U.S. does not endorse Taiwan's independence, the concept of two Chinas or one China and one Taiwan, or the idea that Taiwan should join any organization requiring statehood.
President Bill Clinton holds up his hands indicating no more questions as he and Chinese President Jiang Zemin hold a joint press conference in 1997 in Washington, D.C. Clinton confirmed that he agreed to lift a ban on the export of nuclear power technology to China. AFP/Joyce Naltchayan
From 2000 to 2008, Taiwan elected its first DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, for two consecutive terms. Chen initially pledged a moderate cross-strait policy, saying, "The ROC has been a sovereign state since it was founded in 1912, and consequently, there is no need to declare independence." However, when Chen deviated from these promises under domestic pressure, the George W. Bush administration sought to maintain the "one China" status quo by restraining Taipei. For instance, in 2003, when Chen announced plans for a referendum, Bush, standing alongside Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the White House, opposed Chen's efforts to alter the status quo, earning Beijing's appreciation. Furthermore, in response to Chen's constitutional reform discussions and the decision to dissolve the National Unification Council and Guidelines in 2006, the U.S. denied Chen's request to transit through San Francisco and New York to Latin America, offering refuelling stops in Hawaii and Alaska. Beijing maintained a measured response due to its confidence in its appeal and influence in Taiwan and, critically, in the United States' willingness and ability to guide Taipei in the right direction.
Similar to earlier periods of tension, the current escalation regarding the Taiwan issue has arisen from heightened concerns among all parties that one of the others is deviating from the status quo. However, unlike in previous periods, the parties are more rigid, and the process of reconciliation is more challenging:
- China has strengthened.
- Taiwanese sentiment continues to distance itself from the mainland.
- Washington increasingly views Beijing as a strategic competitor.
Consequently, trust has diminished between Taiwan and China and between the U.S. and China.
2024 Candidates and their political position
Hou You-yi, the 66-year-old mayor of New Taipei City, stands as the KMT's presidential candidate for 2024. His life has been a contrast study, from police detective "Iron Fist" to moderate pragmatist. As a veteran police officer, he rose through the ranks, battling crime and earning a formidable reputation. This grit served him well, propelling him into the political arena, where he became deputy mayor of New Taipei before ultimately assuming the city's top spot in 2018.
Hou's political persona thrives on pragmatism and moderation. He steers clear of fiery rhetoric, focusing instead on improving the local economy, public safety, and everyday life. However, criticism swirls around him. Some call him visionless, lacking a clear ideological compass. Others raise concerns about his ties to the KMT, especially its perceived closeness to mainland China.
KMT's presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih speaks during a campaign event in Taipei. Oct. 6, 2023. CNA photo
The KMT candidate has conveyed a more moderate stance on cross-Strait relations, diverging from traditional KMT viewpoints and resisting the party's conventional perspectives(the KMT has historically emphasized the need for dialogue and cooperation with China as the best way to manage cross-strait tensions). In response to questions about the "1992 Consensus," he expressed opposition to interpreting it as the "one country, two systems" as had been referred to by the DPP. Additionally, he strongly disapproves of President Tsai Ing-wen's characterization of the consensus as "stigmatization," although he doesn't explicitly define the term. Hou's reputation for not adhering strictly to party orthodoxy has raised concerns among some KMT hardliners about his governance approach if elected.
Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, is a former doctor who has served in nearly every prominent political role in Taiwan. With a legislative tenure spanning over a decade and a successful term as the popular mayor of Tainan, Mr Lai appeals primarily to hardline independence supporters. However, he has also enjoyed popularity among centrist voters in the past. Despite distrust from China, he has self-identified as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence." Mr. Lai pledges to adhere to Ms. Tsai's cautious stance, emphasizing that already independent Taiwan requires no additional declarations. However, if he emerges victorious, China is likely to persist in its efforts to threaten and isolate Taiwan.
DPP's presidential candidate Lai Ching-te speaks at a campaign event in Taipei. Oct. 5, 2023. CNA photo
Lai has reiterated the DPP's stance that explicit declarations of independence are redundant when Taiwan already experiences many of the advantages of de facto independence. If elected, he is anticipated to maintain this standpoint. However, concerns arise from past statements hinting at aspirations for heightened independence. Following the DPP's triumph in 2016, China has halted official communication with the party and intensified economic sanctions, diplomatic pressures, and military manoeuvres. As an incumbent, Lai will need to uphold his policy positions and address his party's actions and China's reactions over the preceding eight years.
Dr. Ko Wen-je, the outspoken former mayor of Taipei, injects a dose of unpredictability into Taiwan's 2024 election discourse. His political stance defies strict categorization. As a medical doctor who stormed the scene as an independent in 2014, he advocates for transparency, efficiency, and data-driven governance, often criticizing both significant parties' entrenched partisanship.
Ko expresses support for Taiwan's sovereignty, but his advocacy for dialogue and economic ties with mainland China sparks criticism from pro-independence factions. Ko advocates for credible deterrence and effective communication with Beijing to navigate tensions. On national defence, he supports a 3% GDP defence budget, prioritizing strategic areas. Addressing the "1992 consensus," Ko suggests a pragmatic solution, proposing a change in terminology to avoid disputes. He believes Taiwan should focus on avoiding confrontation with China, considering its internal challenges. Ko's stance reflects a commitment to stability, credible deterrence, and strategic communication in cross-strait relations.
TPP's Ko Wen-je (center) speaks during a campaign event in Taipei, September. CNA file photo
Domestically, Ko focuses on improving infrastructure, tackling economic disparity, and fighting corruption, a platform that resonates with some voters seeking alternatives to the established parties. While Ko presents an understanding of Taiwan's social challenges, he cannot independently formulate comprehensive policy solutions. Expressing diverse perspectives on numerous issues may invite controversy and criticism, potentially resulting in voters perceiving a lack of a core stance in the candidate
Key domestic issues for voters in the presidential election
While discussions about cross-strait relations invariably feature prominently in Taiwan's presidential elections, voters also emphasise critical domestic issues such as the economy, energy security, and defence reforms.
Firstly, Taiwan's export-oriented economy is emerging from a recession, with the government projecting a modest full-year growth of 1.6%, a decline of nearly one percentage point from 2022. Hou and Ko propose that improving relations with the mainland could revitalise the sluggish economy. In contrast, Lai advocates diversifying the island's economic partnerships to reduce reliance on China, citing national security considerations. Although Lai's approach may require time, it gained some traction as the economy expanded by 2.3% in the third quarter, marking its fastest growth in a year due to increased consumer spending.
Secondly, the candidates diverge on nuclear energy and energy security issues. In recent years, the Tsai administration has been gradually phasing out nuclear power, reducing its contribution to Taiwan's power consumption to 8%, even as the island aims for carbon neutrality by 2050. Lai stands out as the sole candidate generally opposing the use of Taiwan's nuclear power plants. However, he has signalled some departure from Tsai's energy policy by expressing openness to nuclear energy if safety and waste concerns are adequately addressed. In contrast, Hou has declared his opposition to phasing out nuclear power and pledged to reopen decommissioned plants if elected, citing reasons of environmental sustainability and national security. Taiwan relies heavily on imported energy, primarily natural gas, raising concerns about the island's ability to maintain power during a Chinese blockade or invasion. For Hou, nuclear power plants represent a crucial element in ensuring Taiwan's secure and stable power supply. TPP candidates also share a similar perspective, recommending an extension of the service life of the Maanshan plant, the only active nuclear power plant in Taiwan.
Lastly, the candidates unanimously recognise the need to reform Taiwan's military conscription. The Tsai administration increased the mandatory army service from four months to a full year. While endorsing extended conscription, Ko emphasises that substantial improvements in the "substance of military training" are also essential for effective reforms. While Hou initially opposed the Tsai administration's decision, he has since softened his stance, retracting statements indicating a plan to reduce mandatory military service back to four months if elected.
Prospects for Taiwan's President and Legislative Yuan Elections
Formosa Daily polls consistently show a 5-11% lead for the DPP candidate, with the KMT in second place and the TPP trailing by around 10%, maintaining this pattern over time. Initial November polls indicated a slight DPP lead of approximately 5%, which has steadily grown, reaching a 10% difference in early December. The Economist tracker of polls shows less lead (5%) for the DPP candidate. Taiwan does not allow new opinion polls to be published within ten days of the election on January 13th. So, these are some of the most recent data available. Varied polls suggest a DPP candidate lead of about 5% while indicating a closely contested battle between the TPP and KMT candidates. For the presidential election, the winner needs only a simple majority to win. There is no run-off election. Therefore, the DPP candidate is the sole leader of the election race.
The composition of the Legislative Yuan remains crucial for effective governance in Taiwan. Like other parliamentary systems globally, the Legislative Yuan plays a vital role in the governance framework. As per the current amended Constitution, its powers include crafting laws, approving the national budget, treaties, and emergency decrees, reviewing executive decrees, interpellating government officials, and initiating no-confidence votes against the Executive Yuan.
The Legislative Yuan approved the required legislation Tuesday (Feb. 21) to pay a NT$6,000 ($197) surplus tax rebate, with the money expected to be distributed in April. CNA photo
Historically, the DPP administration faced challenges of political gridlock after the peaceful transfer of power in 2000. Despite controlling more seats, the DPP lacked a full majority from 2000-2008, leading to frequent opposition coalitions obstructing government initiatives. Overcoming this gridlock, constitutional amendments in 2005 reduced seats to 113, and in the subsequent 2008 legislative election, the KMT secured an absolute majority, controlling both the executive and legislative branches.
According to a recent poll, the KMT currently holds the highest support in this context (32%), followed by the DPP (28%), the TPP (18%), and the New Power Party (NPP) (3%), while 18% remain undecided. The uncertainty surrounding whether the traditionally DPP-aligned NPP will secure at-large seats raises questions about the DPP's potential coalition partners, adding a layer of unpredictability to the upcoming legislative elections.
How does Beijing view the election?
Beijing favours a KMT victory to ease cross-strait tensions and advance Xi Jinping's goal of achieving "peaceful unification", driven by its perception that the DPP inclines towards independence despite public statements. Initially cautious in influencing the election, recent shifts in Beijing's rhetoric, including stern warnings against supporting Taiwan's independence, indicate a more ominous stance. Utilizing tactics like disinformation, China seeks to erode Taiwanese confidence in their government, challenge U.S. support, and portray actions by the United States and Taiwan as destabilizing. Regardless of the election outcome, Beijing anticipates no lasting change in cross-strait relations. A Lai victory would likely result in continued disengagement from China due to the DPP's stance on the 1992 Consensus. Even if a future KMT leader fosters improved ties with Beijing, the Taiwanese public's resistance to "unification" persists, and Beijing remains committed to its goal. While tensions might momentarily ease under a KMT president, Beijing will continue pressuring Taiwan, seeking to shape public sentiment towards "peaceful unification" over war, regardless of the ruling party.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, with his US counterpart, Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022. AFP/Saul Loeb
A standard method Beijing employs to exert influence in elections is the imposition of sanctions. China has banned imports of specific Taiwanese agricultural and fishery products linked to the Chinese market, including pineapples (February 2021), wax apples, and custard apples (September 2021), as well as grouper fish (June 2022). This primarily affects farmers and fishermen in the southern region of Taiwan, traditionally aligned with the DPP. In April, Beijing suggested the potential termination of preferential tariffs established in 2010, likely as a cautionary measure to dissuade DPP support in the 2024 election. Although these measures have a limited economic impact, impacting only a tiny fraction of Taiwan's total exports to China, they convey a distinct political message. Concerning military actions around Taiwan, Beijing has heightened displays of force, particularly in response to perceived disruptions of the status quo by U.S. or Taiwanese actions. Notably, following high-profile visits by U.S. politicians to Taiwan and vice versa, China escalated military exercises around Taiwan, establishing a new norm of increased military presence in the strait, involving the deployment of more warplanes and ships closer to Taiwan. The prevailing narrative across Taiwan's political spectrum suggests that Beijing seeks to dictate the terms of the cross-strait relationship without considering the will of the Taiwanese people.
Beijing combined economic sticks with carrots to signal to a Taiwanese audience that entities deemed "pro-independence" would face consequences. At the same time, those approaching China with a friendlier posture would be rewarded. For instance, in 2016, Chinese tour operators reduced the number of tourists visiting Taiwan while promising more tourists to KMT-controlled areas. In 2018, Beijing announced policies to provide Taiwanese businesses and individuals in China with benefits similar to those of their mainland counterparts. In 2023, it introduced 21 specific measures to make Fujian province a preferred destination for Taiwanese. Simultaneously, China sanctioned individuals and companies seen as pro-independence, including Tsai administration officials, and fined companies associated with the Taiwanese conglomerate Far Eastern Group in 2021, likely due to their donations to the DPP.
The 2024 Taiwan presidential election presents an opportunity for renewed cross-strait dialogue, with potential scenarios depending on the election outcome. In the case of a KMT victory, the existing understanding between the party and Beijing offers a more straightforward path, suggesting improved relations, at least temporarily. Conversely, a DPP triumph would necessitate collaborative efforts to establish a mutually agreeable political framework for cross-strait relations. To manage expectations, the KMT must communicate to China that progress aligns with Taiwanese societal acceptance and seeks reciprocity, particularly in reducing Chinese military deployments.
However, some agreement seems unlikely given Beijing's mistrust of the DPP. Therefore, an alternative approach may be necessary to initiate a relationship thaw. Beijing is keen on demonstrating to its domestic audience that progress is being made towards "unification" with Taiwan. In this context, a new DPP government could outline a list of areas where cooperation could resume and deepen if dialogue recommences, thereby highlighting the incentives for Beijing. The extent to which the DPP can and will offer additional gestures or realize cross-strait cooperation will depend on Beijing, it also seeks to enhance the relationship, potentially including a reduction in economic, military, and political pressures on Taiwan.
The significance of the election for the United States
As the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election approaches, the future of the United States-Taiwan relationship hangs in the balance. With tensions simmering across the Taiwan Strait, understanding the candidates' stances on the U.S. is crucial.
The current mayor of New Taipei City, Hou, takes a pragmatic and cautious approach towards the U.S. He advocates for maintaining the existing "one China" policy and existing security agreements, emphasizing dialogue and economic cooperation with mainland China. While recognizing the U.S. as a vital security partner, he prioritizes stability and avoids actions that could provoke China.
Lai holds pro-independence leanings and advocates for stronger ties with the U.S. He proposes deepening military and economic cooperation, including potential free trade agreements and increased defence spending. Lai prioritizes U.S. support in strengthening Taiwan's self-defence capabilities and upholding its democratic values.
Ko presents a more independent and unpredictable stance. He recognizes the importance of the U.S. for Taiwan's security but also calls for maintaining a balance with mainland China. Ko emphasizes dialogue and economic partnerships with both countries, preferring a neutral and pragmatic approach to navigating the complex geopolitical landscape.
Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen taking a group photo with the US Congressional Delegation and senior Taiwanese officials in the Taiwanese Presidential Office Building on 3 August 2022. @SpeakerPelosi / Twitter
The 2024 Taiwan election holds significant implications for the United States, shaping Taiwan's foreign policy trajectory, particularly its relationship with China, at a crucial juncture.
A DPP victory will likely deepen Taiwan's connections with the United States and other democratic nations, potentially escalating tensions with China, given Beijing's historical reluctance to collaborate with the DPP. In the event of a KMT triumph, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship could face complications if Taiwan pursues renewed economic and diplomatic ties with China amid heightened U.S.-China tensions. The potential outcomes of a TPP victory remain uncertain due to the party's novelty and incomplete articulation of its stance on critical issues and low support. Irrespective of the election results, U.S. policymakers must adapt and navigate the evolving relationships among the United States, China, and Taiwan.
In the upcoming Taiwan elections, the stark divergence in China policy between KMT and DPP candidates is evident, reflecting different approaches to maintaining the status quo. Mr. Hou prioritizes dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party, emphasizing the "1992 consensus" and "one China." In contrast, under Mr. Lai, the DPP prioritizes Taiwan's security and independence, scrutinizing China's proposals after safeguarding Taiwan's interests. A KMT victory could enhance economic prospects through reduced sanctions and agreements with China, while a DPP triumph may reinforce self-sufficiency, heightening tensions. Despite both advocating for the "status quo," each candidate's position hints at distinctive policy visions within this shared framework.
Irrespective of the election outcome, the next presidency will likely be weaker than the previous term, resembling the divided minority government seen from 2000-2008. The TPP, as a formidable third political power, could emerge as a decisive swing party critical for governance in any new administration. Despite the failed coalition KMT, the TPP's pivotal role might make it more willing to collaborate with the DPP, irrespective of their coalition status.
Written by Danylo Hrechko, an intern at the ADASTRA FELLOWS think tank
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