Ordinarily, an election on a small island halfway around the world would be of little consequence to the United States. Taiwan, however, is another matter. Its voters will go to the polls Saturday, January 13 (the evening of January 12, U.S. time), to choose their next president. The first-past-the-post contest likely will go down to the wire, with three candidates still vying for the job one week from Election Day.
The favorite is Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s current vice president and the candidate atop the ticket for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The Economist’s final polling averages, last updated January 2, had Lai at 36 percent of the vote. Challenging Lai are Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who, per the Economist averages, are expected to take 31 percent and 24 percent of the vote, respectively. Some Taiwanese domestic polling outlets show Lai up by a larger margin, but one, the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, suggests that Hou has narrowed the gap to within 4 points. Should Lai win, it would be the third consecutive DPP presidential election victory, after outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen’s repeat. Given the KMT’s trouncing of the DPP in the 2022 midterm local elections, however, a favorable outcome for Lai is far from guaranteed.
The most salient issue for Taiwanese voters is how to deal with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan’s domestic political dynamics surrounding cross-strait relations are also the issue most likely to confuse Americans, perhaps especially those on the American right. While in the U.S. Democrats and Republicans have, by and large, reached a consensus that China is America’s primary geopolitical rival and now compete to out-hawk one another, views on China within Taiwan’s body politic vary. Moreover, the prevailing party alignment on the issue within Taiwan might surprise right-of-center Americans.
Despite its historic anti-Communist bona fides, Hou’s KMT is not the party most at odds with Beijing today. That distinction belongs to Lai’s DPP. The KMT retains a notional commitment to the concept of “One China,” outlined in a 1992 agreement between the then-governing KMT in Taipei and the PRC. The compact maintains that there is a single, expansively defined China, but that the two sides have “different interpretations” of it. The KMT believes that the government in Taipei is the proper successor to the Republic of China (ROC) that existed until the Communist victory in 1949, not merely in name, but in principle. On this view, the island of Taiwan is as much a part of One China as is Fujian province, across the strait. Beijing agrees on the geographic bounds of One China, but not, of course, to which government sovereignty belongs. With each ensuing decade since 1992 and each change in leadership, Beijing’s rhetoric on the Taiwan question has become more bellicose. As Ivan Kanapathy, former National Security Council director for China and Taiwan, put it, “Beijing no longer acknowledges [1992’s] ‘respective formulations of One China.’”
Acknowledging intraparty disagreements and diversity, a shorthand way for Americans to think of the KMT is as a party heavily influenced by the waishengren (外省人)—the people who took refuge from the Communist Party takeover of the mainland in 1949—and their intellectual descendants. The KMT exhibits a stronger sense of cultural continuity and affiliation with a historic China than does the DPP and, therefore, is keener on the strengthening of cross-strait bonds through means such as travel and business. Such engagement has indeed proved beneficial, with dense webs of economic partnerships delivering a prosperity boom on both sides of the strait since the PRC’s reforms under Deng Xiaoping.
The KMT’s main campaign message has been that it can keep the peace. Hou, mayor of New Taipei City and former head of the National Police Agency, has castigated Lai for harming cross-strait relations and increasing the likelihood of armed conflict by flirting with formal independence. Hou and his party do not, it must be stated, argue for unification with the mainland, a position supported by a vanishingly thin portion of the Taiwanese electorate—less than 1 percent—in the near term and only 5 percent even in the long term. The KMT argues, rather, for a tight grip on the shaky status quo.
Americans should think of the DPP—again, in shorthand—as the party that wants to move on. Emerging in the 1980s era of nascent democratization, the DPP called in its early days for formal independence and a rechristening of the ROC to the Republic of Taiwan. The DPP, broadly speaking, represents the development of a distinct Taiwanese identity—a textured hybrid that draws upon not only strong Chinese historic influence but also indigenous history that predates the Chinese arrival in the seventeenth century, the institutions established by Japan during its 50-year occupation that ended only with its World War II surrender, and Taiwan’s now 75 years as the Republic of China. The growing prevalence of Taiwanese self-identification, and its political manifestations in the form of the DPP, are encapsulated in President Tsai Ing-wen herself, whose own autobiographical accounts increasingly emphasize Taiwanese identity.
As it has become the leading party in national politics, the DPP has dampened its official support for an independence declaration. Tsai has stressed during her presidency that Taiwan does not need to declare independence because, in effect, it is already independent. As recently as 2017, Lai described himself as “a political worker for Taiwanese independence,” but, with his own presidency now becoming possible, he has adopted Tsai’s stance, emphasizing not what ought to be but what is. And what is, to Lai, is a sovereign Taiwan.
Lai’s running mate and Taiwan’s current unofficial representative to the U.S., the colorful Hsiao Bi-khim, explained last month to The Economist that the DPP recognizes the precarity of its circumstances and intends to govern with utmost prudence. In contrast to Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomatic mentality, Hsiao says that Taiwan must channel the agility and balance of cats, which “can balance themselves in very delicate places.” The DPP wants to align closely with the U.S., but it would not rule out dialogue with Beijing, something the latter has cut off during the Tsai era.
Ko Wen-je’s TPP, meanwhile, is the wildcard. Ko, the Taipei mayor from 2014 to 2022, has become a political force over the past decade, prioritizing kitchen-table issues and appealing to Taiwan’s independent voters, who outnumber committed partisans. He has called attention to many such issues in his current campaign, including Taiwan’s energy problems, but running for president brings broader matters to the fore. Faced for the first time with geopolitics, Ko, like Hou and the KMT, has sounded the alarm on what he views as DPP risk-taking. The pragmatic approach in the face of pressure from Beijing, Ko thinks, is to make nice.
KMT-TPP agreement on this most important of issues prompted a frenzied effort last fall to form a Hou–Ko unity ticket, a prospect that would have likely made Lai the underdog. Ko argued that such a ticket would be the best way to oust the DPP “for the safety of Taiwan.” Political egos got in the way, though, and the plan dissolved, leaving voters to choose now between the three parties rather than between Lai and a joint ticket.
The election result will be consequential to the United States because Taiwan is an economic dynamo and an important part of America’s foreign policy. Elbridge Colby, author of the Defense Department’s 2018 National Security Strategy, goes so far as to argue that Taiwan is America’s strategic linchpin.
What will it mean for Washington if Hou Yu-ih wins? On the one hand, Hou’s attitude could, as he promises, lessen tensions and reduce the risk of a war that would draw in American forces. On the other, it might whet Beijing’s appetite for influence; a tighter cross-strait bond might even gradually tip the region’s balance of power away from the U.S. If Taiwan were ever to enter China’s camp, Colby believes America’s global hegemony—and the security and economic benefits it delivers to the American people—would be extinguished.
The Washington establishment’s general consensus on China paradoxically contributes to a muddled conversation on Taiwan. Diplomatically, the U.S. assents to the same One China standard that Beijing and the KMT maintain. Nevertheless, the U.S. is Taiwan’s chief supplier of weaponry and would be instrumental to warding off any large-scale assault from across the strait. President Joe Biden, to his aides’ chagrin, has repeatedly treated Taiwan as a de facto ally, invoking a “sacred commitment” to defend it in the event of a PRC attack. In so doing, Biden has put paid to official Washington’s preferred policy of strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis Taiwan.
Not to be outdone, the bipartisan Senate Foreign Relations Committee has advanced bills to designate Taiwan a major non-NATO ally. Former secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone further, endorsing formal recognition of an independent Taiwan. Whether such assurances are for the humanitarian benefit of the Taiwanese, are motivated by U.S. core economic and strategic interests, or are attempts to signal resolve to an American domestic audience anxious about China’s rise is rarely clear. The coming election, the potential for a transfer of power in Taipei, and the opportunity for exploitation that a change in administration may offer Beijing demand heightened awareness and precision of thought in Washington.
Amid so much uncertainty, it is worth appreciating an established truth: Taiwan’s society is vibrant and deliberative. Whatever the outcome Saturday, that reality is a rebuke to the People’s Republic and all that it stands for.