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What The Outcome Of Taiwan’s Presidential Election Could Mean For Cross-Strait Relations

While Taiwan’s presidential candidates support maintaining ties with the U.S., they diverge in their respective approaches to China.

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In January, Taiwanese voters will head to the polls to elect the island’s next president, who will be instrumental in shaping Taiwan’s policy toward the United States and Red China. With Beijing becoming increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan — which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims is Chinese territory — the outcome of the nation’s presidential contest will be felt throughout the region for years to come.

Running to succeed term-limited President Tsai Ing-wen are three main contenders: Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s current vice president and member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); Hou Yu-ih, the mayor of New Taipei and member of the rival party Kuomintang (KMT); and Ko Wen-je, the former mayor of Taipei and founder of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

While polls are often inaccurate and used to shape rather than reflect public opinion, they currently show a tight three-way race slightly favoring Lai. According to The Economist, a series of surveys conducted from Nov. 10-25 shows Lai averaging roughly 32.3 percent support, with Hou and Ko garnering 30.3 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively.

The DPP’s growing unpopularity among the Taiwanese electorate prompted talks between Hou and Ko about a possible unity ticket to improve the opposition’s electoral chances against Lai. That proposal ultimately collapsed after the camps couldn’t agree on polling to decide whose name should appear at the top of the ticket.

Taiwan will also hold elections for its Legislative Yuan, the national unicameral legislature controlled by the DPP.

Views on U.S. and Cross-Strait Relations

As with any country, Taiwanese voters’ political preferences are often based on numerous factors and issues. But as far as America is concerned, it’s worth focusing on each candidate’s views on U.S. and cross-strait relations.

Having served as Tsai’s second-in-command for nearly four years, Lai has indicated he will maintain his boss’s stance of strengthening ties with the U.S. and advancing the notion that Taiwan is an independent country, the latter of which has thoroughly angered China. After Lai visited the U.S. in August, for example, Beijing launched a series of military exercises in the airspace and waters surrounding Taiwan. According to NBC News, the island’s defense ministry “detected 42 Chinese aircraft and eight ships,” with 26 of the aforementioned aircraft crossing the Taiwan Strait’s “median line.”

Lai has expressed interest in establishing a peaceful relationship with China but, much like Tsai, has declined to recognize the 1992 Consensus. That agreement between Tapai and Beijing acknowledges there is only “one China,” despite both sides having different interpretations of which government is representative of China.

While the DPP is considered to be a more “pro-independence” party, Lai has dismissed the need for Taiwan to issue a formal declaration of independence, reaffirming the Tsai administration’s position that the island is “already a sovereign, independent country.” This reasoning has only further prompted the island’s DPP leadership to ramp up its defense spending and purchase additional military weaponry from the U.S. in recent years to deter a potential Chinese invasion.

Meanwhile, Hou — whose party has historically been much more China-friendly than the DPP — appears to be adopting a somewhat tougher stance on deterring Chinese aggression. In September, the KMT candidate penned an article outlining his strategy for ensuring Taiwan remains a sovereign country, including plans to bolster Taiwan’s national defense capabilities and “enhance cooperation with partners and allies,” including the United States.

Hou did, however, pledge to reverse an order issued by Tsai that would extend Taiwan’s compulsory military service for men from four months to a year. The policy is set to take effect on Jan. 1, according to Reuters.

In his article, Hou expressed support for the 1992 Consensus and pledged to oppose “any push for independence” and attempts “to absorb the island into unification with mainland China under the guise of ‘one country, two systems.’” He also described a willingness to reestablish dialogue and relations with Beijing, which he believes will “reduce the probability of conflicts” in the Taiwan Strait.

Similar to Hou, Ko has proposed a strategy based on deterrence and communication. During a September Bloomberg interview, the third-party candidate threw his support behind reestablishing dialogue between Taipei and Beijing. He also expressed the need for Taiwan to increase its military budget and criticized the DPP-run government for the way it opposes China, saying, “I can’t see they have made any preparations.”

Regarding independence, Ko voiced support for Taiwan maintaining the “status quo,” in which the nation continues to operate as a recognized country without declaring independence or unifying with China. The TPP candidate did not, however, say whether he supports the 1992 Consensus.

Interestingly, Hou and Ko both reportedly back efforts to revive a contentious economic treaty with China considered during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the KMT who served from 2008-2016. The proposal, which was signed but never ratified, generated widespread protests, the participants of which feared that “closer economic integration with China would compromise Taiwan’s political autonomy and self-governing status.” The backlash to the agreement is believed to have helped launch the DPP into power in 2016.

What This Means

While all three candidates have expressed support for maintaining strong ties with the U.S., they diverge in their respective approaches to China.

Across the board, Taiwan’s main presidential candidates appear to agree that Taiwan needs to enhance its national defense if it wishes to deter further aggression from China. On the issue of dialogue, however, Lai seems much more reluctant to reestablish talks with Beijing than either Hou or Ko. The latter two also appear more eager to enhance greater economic cooperation with China than their DPP rival.

Should Lai prevail in next month’s election, it’s likely his administration will continue the same cross-strait policies carried out under Tsai’s presidency. If Hou or Ko win, there’s a possibility that Taiwan’s approach to Beijing could become much more friendly. While both opposition candidates have pledged to deter Chinese aggression via increased military spending and maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty, their willingness to enhance economic ties with Beijing may cause concern among those distrustful of communist China.

As shown with its takeover of Hong Kong, the CCP cannot be trusted to play fairly when it comes to historical claims over contested territory. Chinese dictator Xi Jinping has made very clear his intention to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, either by peaceful means or force. The belief that China will allow Taiwan to exist as a sovereign state for good is foolish, irrespective of whether the two nations have an established dialogue.

Whatever outcome January’s elections may yield, the one thing that seems certain is that U.S. support for Taiwanese sovereignty in the face of chinese Communist authoritarianism will continue.  


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