As Taiwan approaches its next presidential election in 2024, the nation finds itself at a critical juncture, as voters face a choice about Taiwan’s future role in the Indo-Pacific region.
Although both major political parties have yet to decide on their presidential candidate, one emerging area of debate focuses on whether international efforts—particularly those of the U.S.—to support Taiwan's security should be seen as credible and trustworthy. Taiwan’s current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, has worked closely with the United States and international partners to carefully maintain the cross-Strait status quo and bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
On the other hand, narratives that portray U.S. support for Taiwan with skepticism and distrust have also emerged in Taiwan’s public discourse. While it is unsurprising that commentary from Chinese state media would actively seek to discredit international support for Taiwan’s defense, in recent years, politicians from Taiwan’s largest opposition party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), have also adopted similar rhetoric. A closer analysis of these misleading narratives can reveal how shifts in public opinion in Taiwan could bring wide-ranging ramifications for regional security.
The KMT’s ill-timed delegation to Beijing
Amid heightened international criticism toward China, lately exacerbated by the Chinese spy balloon incident, the KMT sent a high-level delegation to Beijing led by Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia last month. At a moment when the international community seeks to firmly support Taiwan’s efforts to defend itself against China, the KMT’s actions to build ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) send a contradictory and confusing message.
Although the ill-timed delegation claimed to focus on economic issues, the trip also touched upon political statements, such as reiterating the KMT and CCP’s joint adherence to the so-called “1992 consensus”—a formula which the KMT defines as “One China, different interpretations,” but the CCP simply defines as “One China.”
Hsia’s delegation seems to have dispersed any notion that the KMT is trying to detach itself from its “pro-China” image at home and abroad. However, the delegation can only be seen as one of the several indicators that the KMT continues to face internal pressure to prioritize relations with China, as many prominent voices within the party have consistently expressed staunch opposition towards U.S. policies regarding Taiwan on a wide range of issues.
Misleading narratives on international support for Taiwan
Despite a historic background in anti-communism, the KMT has experienced a drastic realignment in ideology in recent decades. Although the KMT once branded itself as a force of stability in Taiwanese politics, today it risks alienating moderate voters as it increasingly adopts hardline narratives that echo Beijing’s views.
In recent years, leading voices within the KMT have often expressed distrust towards international efforts to support Taiwan’s security. Lazy comparisons with Afghanistan or Ukraine have been employed to question the actions of the U.S. or Western democracies in general – either arguing that the U.S. would “abandon” Taiwan in a potential conflict with China, or that the U.S. will somehow use Taiwan as “cannon fodder” against China to further its own interests.
By glossing over major differences in geography and context, KMT hardliners have used inflammatory slogans such as “Today Afghanistan, Tomorrow Taiwan” to argue that the United States cannot be trusted when it comes to statements about Taiwan. Many comments by KMT legislators have focused on comparisons with Ukraine to argue that the United States would leave Taiwan to fend for itself in the case of war with China.
Some discussions involve the spreading of false information through Chinese or Russian-linked sources. In a recent example, a former KMT legislator shared a translated version of a tweet by Radio Sputnik’s Garland Nixon, provoking media controversy and rebuttals from both Taiwan’s foreign ministry and the American Institute in Taiwan—the de facto U.S. embassy. The original tweet read: “White House insiders leak that, when asked if there could be any greater disaster than the neocon Ukraine project, President Joe Biden responded, wait until you see our plan for the destruction of Taiwan.”
On economic issues, the KMT legislative caucus has strongly expressed its opposition against semiconductor giant TSMC's investments in microchip manufacturing in the United States, accusing that the move would “hollow out” Taiwan’s economy. Research by the Taiwanese non-profit group IORG traces the trajectory of how arguments against TSMC’s investments started on Chinese social media platforms as early as 2021. By early 2022, these views were amplified by KMT-leaning media pundits in Taiwan, citing TSMC’s establishment of production lines in Arizona as a sign of impending American abandonment of Taiwan, while receiving extensive coverage by Chinese state media. Cases like this show how the cross-referencing of sources from both sides of the Taiwan Strait can be used to influence public opinion.
False equivalence on China could destabilize the region
In other instances, the KMT seems to argue for Taiwan to maintain an equal distance between China and the United States. In a telling example, New Taipei City mayor Hou You-yi, seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate for the KMT, recently said that “Taiwan should not become a chess piece for any powerful country.” Hou’s language echoes views often expressed by Chinese state media, which characterize Taiwan’s partnership with the United States in a negative light and describe Taiwan as a “pawn” instead of a partner.
Many of these comments essentially attempt to present a false equivalence between the United States and China by refusing to choose sides. However, given that China is not a neutral actor in the Taiwan Strait and continues to increase its assertive behavior, a failure on Taiwan’s part to pursue close cooperation with the United States and like-minded democracies would only enable China to expand its military influence in the Taiwan Strait and beyond, while further destabilizing peace in the Indo-Pacific.
Views skeptical toward international support for Taiwan could erode public confidence in Taiwan’s security and undermine mutual trust between Taiwan and its international partners. This type of reasoning could also weaken Taiwanese society’s resolve to resist China’s encroachment, leading to greater calls for a policy of appeasement on China—which would drastically alter existing geopolitical conditions in the Taiwan Strait.
In this context, visible gestures of support for Taiwan from like-minded democracies remain crucial in reassuring the public; whereas conflicting messages or predictions about Taiwan’s security could lead to confusion, even inadvertently fueling further distrust.
Strengthening peace through close international cooperation
In contrast with the KMT, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has focused its efforts on building trust with international partners. Over the past seven years, the current DPP administration has relied on several important policy positions which continue to serve as pillars for Taiwan’s security. Among these important guidelines include the preservation of the cross-strait status quo, a firm but cautious approach towards managing relations with China, close alignment with like-minded democracies, promoting a healthy environment for international trade, contributions toward global humanitarian issues, as well as bolstering Taiwan’s defense capabilities through much-needed reforms.
Remarks by Vice President Lai Ching-te (William Lai), who recently succeeded Tsai as chair of the DPP, indicate that the DPP’s major policy positions on foreign relations and cross-strait issues will remain consistent under Lai’s leadership. The vice president has repeatedly emphasized strong support for Tsai’s “Four Commitments,” a series of principles on managing cross-strait relations announced during the 2021 National Day address. Through remarks following his swearing-in ceremony on January 18 and many other occasions, Lai has made clear his intention to continue Tsai’s stable approach to maintaining the status quo, as well as his willingness to further strengthen Taiwan’s friendship with the international community.
In an era in which autocracies seek to challenge the rules-based international order, Taiwan must not distance itself from longstanding partnerships out of appeasement or cynicism. Countering harmful narratives that seek to discredit Taiwan’s relations with international partners continues to remain an issue of great importance.
Fei-fan Lin is former Deputy Secretary-General of the Democratic Progressive Party.
Wen Lii is Director of the Democratic Progressive Party’s local chapter in the Matsu Islands.