Taiwan Election Outcomes and China’s Apprehension About the Trajectories of the Conflict in the East


ByAbdul Rauf Mostafa Ghonaimy

In a significant development with far-reaching geopolitical implications, a new factor has added fuel to the already volatile situation in the Far East. This happened amidst heightened tensions and security concerns in several global regions. The Taiwanese presidential elections resulted in  the Democratic Progressive Party’s hold on power for the third time in a row, with a separatist agenda for the island. Lai Ching-te emerged victorious despite Chinese warnings and efforts to thwart his success. China has labeled him a “stubborn worker for Taiwan independence” and a “dangerous separatist.” Lai Ching-te, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, won the election, and Taiwan’s outgoing Vice President, Tsai Ing-wen, who belongs to the same party, also won. However, according to the Taiwan Constitution, she cannot serve up to three consecutive terms.

The victory of Lai Ching-te, who will assume his duties as president of Taiwan on May 20, 2024, indicates the persistence of regional and international concerns about the possibility of scaling up tensions between China and Taiwan, leading to a catastrophic scenario. Taipei is a strategic ally of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. China fears the new president will cross its most important red lines: taking practical steps for independence from “Mainland China” (the People’s Republic of China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan).

The new president believes in the separatist agenda of the party, which supports Taiwan’s separatist identity from that of China. This is due to the divergence between  Taiwan’s identity, which in terms of substance and orientation is grounded in the liberal ideology or Western democracy, and  China’s identity, which has a different communist intellectual system and is competitive with the West. The former mainly rejects Beijing’s sovereign claims on Taiwan and holds on to the decision of the Taiwanese people in determining their future. In his first statements, the new president pledged to defend the autonomous island against what he called China’s intimidating moves against Taiwan. He stated that the election results revealed to the world the desire of Taiwanese citizens for democracy in Taiwan and reflected a great victory for democracies worldwide.

In the same context, Lai Ching-te’s rule marks a new stage or an additional chapter of escalation. It is an extension of the term of outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen in terms of the persistence of the ruling party’s separatist strategy and agenda.  Her election as president of Taiwan about eight years ago resulted in the severance of all high-level contact with Beijing.  Her tenure witnessed a surge in Beijing tensions, almost sparking a third World War.  The new president’s victory reflects the failure of Chinese threats to dissuade Taiwanese citizens from voting for him in the elections. They demonstrated China’s growing fears that the space for Washington to step in is increasing, thus hindering Beijing’s march to implement the One China principle.

The Chinese position largely followed expectations; it strongly warned external parties against interference in the Taiwanese elections and employed threatening and escalatory language against the Democratic Progressive Party candidate. China explicitly reaffirmed that it would thwart any future moves toward Taiwan’s independence. China’s position also stressed the inevitable unification between China and the island and rejected Lai Ching-te’s calls for talks with Beijing. During the voting, Chinese warplanes flew over Taiwanese airspace, and Chinese airships crossed the borderline between mainland China and the island. China believes that Lai Ching-te’s coming to power will lead to an escalation in tensions. After his electoral victory, the Chinese position changed dramatically, and Beijing used calm, balanced language, reflecting Chinese satisfaction with the new political scene in Taiwan.

China’s unexpectedly calm position on the victory of the ruling party candidate was due to Beijing’s awareness of the nature of the new political scene in Taiwan, which has two significant features.

 First, the ruling party lost the parliamentary majority by securing 51 out of 113 seats, unlike the previous president’s tenure, in which the party secured a majority. This hinders the new government’s work and even the new president’s task to pass legislation and introduce new defense policies and budgets, especially if a decision is made to impose the party’s separatist agenda. This is quite ironic as the Taiwanese citizens handed the presidency to the ruling party via the election process. Still, the party was deprived of a majority that would have given it the impetus to address Taiwan’s socio-economic and social issues as well as make swift changes to defense policies and address cross-strait relations.  

Second, Kuomintang, the opposition Nationalist Party to the ruling party,  has the upper hand on the Taiwan scene by ranking first in  the parliamentary elections with the most significant number of seats: 52. Therefore, Beijing declared that the electoral victory of  the ruling party means it “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion on the island [Taiwan].” Kuomintang openly calls for talks and closer relations with China and supports the narrative of China: China and Taiwan belong to one China. The new president may have already realized the features of the new landscape and its implications on governance during the next stage. Therefore, his victory speech in the elections demonstrated the desire to cooperate with the opposition parties represented by Kuomintang, the Trans-Pacific Partnership party, which also supports the establishment of close relations with China, and the centrist Taiwan People’s Party to facilitate the work of his new government. The new president declared his desire to preserve peace in the Taiwan Strait and continuous exchanges and cooperation with Beijing. It is worth mentioning that the calculations of an electoral candidate — when he is out of power— usually change after he comes to power; he finds himself in a position of responsibility and in charge of every decision. Therefore, he often returns to political realism according to the determinants of the political game and calculations of power and national interest.

Beijing is also aware of how difficult it is for Lai Ching-te to turn a blind eye to the existing equation between China and the island in light of the US preoccupation with several hotbeds of tension: the Russia-Ukraine war, the outbreak of the conflict in the Gaza Strip following Operation Al-Aqsa Flood resulting in Israel’s vicious war against unarmed Palestinian civilians. This is in addition to the military escalation by pro-Iranian armed militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen against US and Israeli targets, military escalation in the Red Sea and its repercussions on international maritime navigation. This explains US President Joe Biden’s statement in the wake of the Taiwanese election results that Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence in a message of reassurance to China to assuage its concerns on the election of Lai Ching-te as president of Taiwan.

China, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States and the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), pursues a pragmatic policy based on realistic power calculations, interests and alternative opportunities. By adopting a pragmatic policy, China avoids zero-sum conflict with the United States and realizes the cost and the consequences of entering into a catastrophic scenario that would negatively impact international trade and the future of its global project, the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR/1B1R).  All parties are aware of the respective red lines and do not appear willing to test the disastrous scenario, reported in the media as the “Doomsday war” if the struggle over Taiwan turns into an all-out war. This is due to the seriousness of its repercussions on the world, including the United States and pro-Washington Asian powers in the Indo-Pacific.

In conclusion,  regional and international interactions on the Taiwanese crisis and the geopolitical significance of the island, which has the most significant overwhelming percentage of the global advanced chip market, demonstrate that Taiwan will have a significant presence on the global chessboard if international powers move toward geostrategic reconfiguration in light of the contest over the international system and leadership.  The recent Taiwanese elections have left the possibility of an escalation option up in the air. It is not entirely clear whether this escalation will occur, but it is likely if Taiwan crosses any of China’s red lines. The new president is expected to follow the approach of his predecessor, President Tsai, and continue to resist any fait accompli. This means that the policy of affirming Taiwan’s democratic identity and sovereignty will continue, with more efforts to gain international diplomatic recognition. This is especially important given the growing sense of Taiwanese identity among the Taiwanese people. However, Taiwan is wary of provoking China further, as this could lead to punitive measures such as economic sanctions, a tighter blockade, or even the occupation of some islands close to the Chinese mainland.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Abdul Rauf Mostafa Ghonaimy
Abdul Rauf Mostafa Ghonaimy
Political researcher at Rasanah IIIS