Who Does Washington Want to Win Taiwan’s Presidential Election?

Who Does Washington Want to Win Taiwan’s Presidential Election?

The election outcome will indisputably shape the dynamic between the United States, Taiwan, and China.


When questioned on their preferred candidate in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections, U.S. officials and experts assert that the United States does not officially endorse or support any candidate or party. A closer examination of the candidates, however, reveals that William Lai Ching-te from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is Washington’s unspoken favorite in the presidential race, closely aligning with American strategic interests while balancing ties with China.

From Tsai Ing-wen to Wiliam Lai Ching-te


Under the steadfast leadership of the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen over the past eight years, the relationship between Washington and Taipei has reached unprecedented levels of cooperation. During Tsai’s two terms as president, she has secured multiple military sale contracts from the United States, heightened diplomatic engagements, and robust support from key American policymakers.

Tsai welcomed dozens of U.S. politicians, including former House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, and visited America to meet representatives, all in spite of Beijing’s displeasures. With Lai serving as vice president from 2020 onward, the Tsai administration forged ever-closer ties with Washington unchanging under Trump and Biden presidencies.

Kharis Templeman, program manager of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, remarked, “She [Tsai Ing-wen] is now, I would argue, the best Taiwan president the U.S. will ever get.” Lai, the DPP’s presidential candidate for 2024, has pledged to continue Tsai’s foreign policy initiatives, penning an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining his vision for his presidency. 

Lai visited the United States in August 2023, meeting with officials from the American Institute in Taiwan—Washington’s de-facto embassy in Taiwan—and introducing himself to international audiences. The foreign policy community in Washington has historically tilted toward the DPP. The pro-independence and pro-American party has also fielded Hsiao Bi-khim as its vice presidential candidate. Hsiao has been popular in the United States as Taiwan’s special envoy since 2020 and has projected Taiwan’s commitment to democracy and freedom in a manner that resonates with Washington policymakers and the American public.

Reinforcing Taiwan’s Defense

The Overall Defense Concept is Taiwan’s current strategy for dealing with a possible Chinese invasion in a resource-constrained environment. Adopted by the Tsai government, the strategy emphasizes Taiwan’s existing natural advantages, civilian infrastructure, and asymmetrical warfare capabilities, such as missiles, mines, and drones, to deter and, if necessary, defeat an invasion.

The United States, through the Taiwan Relations Act, has been the primary military supplier for Taipei and has deepened security cooperation through several arms packages. Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, crafted by the Tsai-Lai government, now revolves around pursuing the Overall Defense Concept and committing to asymmetrical defense. In his campaigning, Lai has committed to “expedite our [Taiwan’s] transition into an asymmetric fighting force, focusing on cost-effective and mobile capabilities,” demonstrating his pledge to further military cooperation with the United States.

With Lai promising to continue Tsai’s foreign policy successes and commitment to advancing Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, it appears Washington has found its favorite to win the election.

Worries in Washington 

However, American officials have long fretted that Lai is overly pro-independence, with his victory potentially derailing Washington’s recent stabilization efforts with Beijing.

Historically associated with the DPP’s “deep green” pro-independence faction, Lai Ching-te copped criticism in 2017 when he labeled himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” Although he has since softened his stance and adopted Tsai Ing-wen’s more moderate view, China still views Lai as a “destroyer of peace.” Lai has re-focused his view, noting that Taiwan is “already a sovereign country” without a need to declare independence. Unsurprisingly, this position still irks Beijing; Lai’s victory could be met with intensified Chinese economic or military pressure.

Further, Washington has a tense history of dealing with the DPP, particularly during the Chen Shui-bian administration in the 2000s. Relations in recent years have improved under Tsai and Lai’s cautious and stable governance despite increased intimidation from China. This was seen most evidently during the administration’s ability to weather Beijing’s missile barrage in August 2022 after Pelosi’s visit and later in April 2023 during blockade simulation exercises by the Chinese navy.

Still, American officials remain worried about Lai’s proclivity for loose language and fundamental stance toward Taiwanese independence, including his remarks about hoping to “enter the White House” as Taiwan’s president—which, if realized, would severely damage the Sino-American relationship and upend Washington’s One-China Policy.

The KMT Alternative

With the perceived negatives from Lai and the DPP, it might be suggested that Washington prefers a win for Lai’s nearest rival, Hou Yu-ih, from the Kuomintang (KMT). A victory by the former New Taipei City mayor and the KMT would reduce cross-strait tensions and foster an atmosphere conducive to a new dialogue between Taipei and Beijing while simultaneously stabilizing the U.S. relationship with China. 

If a Hou victory lowers the cross-strait temperature, it could potentially benefit U.S.-China ties. “That would allow the U.S. and China to move Taiwan from the center of the relationship off to the side,” notes the Hoover Institution’s Kharis Templeman.

Beijing has long preferred the KMT to govern Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party finds more commonalities with the KMT than the pro-independence DPP, as the KMT shares Beijing’s belief in One China through the 1992 Consensus, even if there are differing views on what One China means. 

Hou accuses the DPP and the Tsai-Lai administration of endangering Taiwan by flirting with independence and provoking China by seeking closer ties with the United States. His main foreign policy position is the KMT’s promise to bring peace through dialogue with China.

Challenges of Dialogue and Peace

Yet, Hou may be unable to bring his touted peace through discussion. Hou and the KMT oppose both Taiwanese independence and unification with China under Beijing’s proposed “One Country, Two Systems” formula. Most Taiwanese reject this arrangement, whose failure is demonstrated by the current state of freedom in Hong Kong.

From Beijing’s point of view, Hou and the KMT may be more willing to hold talks, such as those held between former KMT president Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2015, but dialogue is unlikely to bring about the concessions China seeks. Hou cannot take steps toward unification with China or even toward closer economic relations. When former President Ma signed an economic integration agreement with China, he angered the Taiwanese public and ignited the Sunflower Movement. Hou will likely face similar public backlash should he take the drastic steps that Beijing wishes. 

Considering this, Hou’s proposal of dialogue is unlikely to satisfy Beijing. This lame-duck position that Hou would be placed in would prove just as irritable to China as a Lai presidency. This would consequently dispel any hope in Washington that a Hou administration could provide the requisite breathing space for more stabilized U.S.-China relations.

Hou’s Potential Shift in Defense Strategy

A further issue that may arise from a Hou government is the likely backflip in the Overall Defense Concept. The KMT has traditionally preferred a symmetrical defense posture vis-à-vis China and displayed its opposition to reliance on the United States for weapons.

When reviewing the FY2022 special budget, the KMT Caucus in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, issued a statement slamming the listing of U.S.-supplied Harpoon missiles in the regular defense budget as a “U.S. demand for our side to prioritize the payment for [U.S.] arms sales.” A similar remark was also made by Ma Wen-chun, a KMT lawmaker in the Foreign and National Defense Committee, who inferred that the U.S. government was forcing Taiwan to buy weapons inferior to indigenous missiles. 

Hou has also previously signposted to the United States that he values deterrence, not through asymmetrical warfare, but rather that Taiwan can save on deterrence and limit the need for military conscription by simply improving ties with China. Were Hou to prove to be overly pro-Beijing, his administration may cause headaches in Washington.

Untested Leadership: Hou and Ko Wen-je’s Status Quo

A notable assurance for Washington lies in the commitment of Hou and third-party candidate Ko Wen-je to uphold the cross-strait status quo. However, sustaining the status quo may present challenges, given both Hou and Ko’s inexperience in national-level governance and their absence of substantial foreign policy credentials.

Hou, whose public service career spans three decades as a policeman, served only on the mayoral level. Similarly, Ko Wen-je, elected as an independent, held the mayoral position in Taipei from 2014 to 2022. In stark contrast, Lai’s formidable qualifications, including a Harvard education, fluency in English, and a plethora of diplomatic engagements abroad as Tsai’s vice president, afford him a considerable advantage.

It also means Lai is more tested in the foreign arena and dealing with China. With this in mind, Jude Blanchette from the Center for Strategic and International Studies succinctly notes Washington’s main concern: “The question is less whether the new president will enact a radical change in the status quo,” as both Hou and Ko have expressed they will not. Rather, “the question is more: how will an untested leader deal with a change in the status quo due to exogenous factors.”