What Will China Do Now on Taiwan?

USS Gerald R. Ford Aircraft Carrier

What Will China Do Now on Taiwan?

The election of Lai Ching-te is not welcome news to the Chinese Communist Party.

On January 13, 2024, Taiwan completed its eighth presidential elections since the self-governed island became a fully-fledged liberal democracy in 1996. Defying Beijing’s threats, Taiwan’s voters elected Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as their next president. In this tight three-way race, the outcome would no doubt impact the global balance of power between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The future peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait hangs in the balance, too, as Beijing, which claims the island as an integral territory, refuses to renounce the use of military force to achieve that objective. During Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s San Francisco meeting last November, the Chinese leader bluntly told his U.S. counterpart that the PRC would “reunify” with Taiwan regardless of the growing ties between Washington and Taipei. Biden, in turn, cautioned Xi not to interfere with Taiwan’s democratic elections. 

Beijing doesn’t conceal its strong loathing for the DPP. Under the incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected and reelected, respectively, in 2016 and 2020, has overseen Taiwan’s rising national consciousness and identity, particularly among the youth population, turning the democratic island into a strong bastion standing up against Chinese autocratic influence and incessant coercive campaigns. Xi’s more repressive control over Hong Kong has further alienated the Taiwanese people from the prospect of closer economic and political integration with the PRC. Tsai’s measured and resilient position on China has won praise and support from the United States, Japan, and other Western democracies, deepening their security and economic relationships over the past eight years. 

Tsai is constitutionally barred from running again, but her vice-president Lai, who once brandished his pro-Taiwan independence credentials conspicuously, has been the consistent frontrunner in the campaign. Though Lai has mollified his former pro-separatist remarks and pledged to follow Tsai’s steadier cross-strait status quo approach, the Xi government isn’t convinced, calling the DPP contender an “extreme danger” and framing the elections as a choice between “peace and war.” Lai’s candidacy was pitted against Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Both opposition parties have promised to improve relations with Beijing by restarting talks and opening economic exchange with the mainland.

In the days leading up to the elections, Hou trailed second in close range with Lai (the TPP made momentum but remained in third place). So, the match was primarily between the DPP and KMT, with the possibility of a Hou upset. The election results, nonetheless, have shown Lai comfortably winning about 5.6 million votes, which translated to more than 40 percent of the ballots cast in Taiwan’s first-past-the-post race. He beat the second-place Hou by over 900,000 votes or roughly 7 percent. The DPP, however, has lost its majority in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, where the KMT made inroads to gaining a plurality of seats, and the TPP holds a critical minority role. A divided legislature will impose greater constraints on Lai’s policy initiatives and budget proposals, including those for national security and defense.

The KMT, Taiwan’s largest opposition party, is traditionally favored by Beijing given the party’s longstanding adherence to the “1992 consensus,” a nebulous formula reached in 1992 between the KMT, still the governing party of Taiwan back then, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that agrees both Taiwan and mainland China belong to a single Chinese nation though disagreeing on what “one China” really means. Yet, Hou is a nonconventional KMT politician as he, while endorsing a version of the “1992 consensus” that is rooted in Taiwan’s constitutional framework, has firmly opposed the PRC’s “one-country two systems” arrangement and promised “not to touch on the issue of unification” if elected president. He outlined his strategic plan to continue strengthening Taiwan’s self-defense and asymmetric capabilities to deter Chinese aggressions while deepening military and economic cooperation with Washington across all levels. Thus, even a KMT victory would probably not have brought Taiwan any closer to China’s anticipated unification path.

The fact that Taiwan is moving inexorably away from China regardless of which party is winning makes Beijing more anxious about the future of Taiwan, thereby raising the chance for a hawkish Xi to take belligerent moves. And that explains why the Biden White House has come forward in an unusual background press call three days before Taiwan’s polls opened. Although reiterating the standard mantra of “our longstanding China policy…guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances,” the Biden administration also made clear:

…[The United States] indicated that we oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side. We do not support Taiwan independence. We support cross-Strait dialogue, and we expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means, free from coercion, in a manner that is acceptable to the people on both sides of the Strait. We do not take a position on the ultimate resolution of cross-Strait differences, provided they are resolved.

The most notable difference from prior Biden administration announcements on cross-strait issues is the phrase “in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the strait.” Compare that with the January 23, 2021, State Department statement, only days after Biden’s inauguration. The 2021 description of the Taiwan Strait impasse posited: “The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan” (emphasis added). What is the significance of this change?

Richard C. Bush, who served between 1997 and 2002 as the chairman of the Board and Managing Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan, confirmed he came up with the idea that the Taiwanese people’s support must be gained before any peaceful and non-coercive cross-strait negotiations or resolutions with the PRC. Taiwan’s democratization had given the people of the island a significant say, and probably the final say, on how to resolve the dispute with the PRC through negotiations. “If Beijing wishes to make progress toward its objective of unification,” Bush wrote in his 2021 book, “it is the island’s voters whom it must convince.” The Bill Clinton administration accepted Bush’s suggestion and used that formulation in a March 2000 speech: “We will continue to reject the use of force as a means to resolve the Taiwan question, making absolutely clear that the issues between Beijing and Taiwan must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan.”

However, the George W. Bush administration altered that language in the early 2000s to include the people of China in the equation. The United States, then, needed to maintain a friendly relationship with Beijing to focus on the global war on terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. It was first enunciated by the then secretary of state-designate Colin Powell during his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2001: “Let all who doubt, from whatever perspective, be assured of one solid truth: We expect and demand a peaceful settlement, one acceptable to people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” In September 2004, Powell, at a joint press conference with the PRC foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, reiterated that the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait difference “has to be acceptable to both sides.” Both the Obama and Trump administrations followed suit despite the latter’s more forceful pushback on Beijing. Biden initially reverted to the Clinton era description and just recently switched back to the rhetoric articulated by the Bush, Obama, and Trump officials. 

Despite the ongoing strategic rivalry between the United States and China, the Biden administration has found it imperative to deescalate the tense Taiwan Strait situation following Taiwan’s elections, particularly in light of America’s preoccupations with two other major conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. The White House has followed up immediately on its plan to dispatch a high-level delegation to Taiwan after their presidential elections. The envoys, including former senior U.S. government officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations, reiterated Washington’s rock-solid” support for Taiwan and its democratic process. 

The DPP’s third consecutive winning of Taiwan’s presidency has dealt Beijing yet another setback. This may enhance Xi’s sense of urgency to push for more truculent and military approaches. China’s weakened economy and mounting corruption purges within their military may rein in Xi’s expansionist impulses. Still, history has shown that ambitious autocratic leaders are also prone to embrace external aggression as a means of diversion from domestic malaise. Washington views it highly critical to calm the waters by not only insisting that any cross-strait conflicts be addressed peacefully and non-coercively but also requiring agreements from peoples from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Such effectively rules out either de jure independence or unification. 

Yet, closer thinking would show that the Chinese people do not have any say in this process, given the CCP’s one-party rule. In his victory speech, Lai again stressed that he would continue Tsai’s balanced cross-strait policy, extending his willingness to engage in dialogue with Beijing based on “dignity and parity” and in “accordance with the constitutional order of the Republic of China.” Biden also reaffirmed that the United States does not support Taiwan's independence. These goodwill attempts to reassure an increasingly belligerent Beijing may not be reciprocated given Xi’s intransigence and eagerness to prove his legitimacy as the PRC’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. China’s economic coercion and pressure campaigns have persisted unabated and will only escalate further. Take Nauru’s severing of diplomatic ties with Taipei only two days after Lai’s election as a case in point. Moreover, come this November, with former president Donald Trump’s or another Republican contender’s likely winning of the White House, the United States will likely pull no punches on the PRC, meaning support for Taiwan will only be more obtrusive. Serious tests lay ahead.