The worry in the minds of voters is whether the US and Europe will have the resolve to challenge China should Xi start to carry out his threat of unification by force, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
Major capitals across the world are paying close attention to the 13 January 2024 Presidential elections in Taiwan. The concern is the possibility that Xi Jinping would take advantage of the twin crises in Ukraine and Gaza to ramp up aggressive action against Taiwan. Should the US, the EU and the Quad not respond to such activity in a deterrent manner, it would diminish their credibility across the world and boost the perception that the PRC under Xi Jinping is unstoppable in its expansionist drive. CCP officials close to Xi Jinping have publicly declared that the coming Presidential polls in Taiwan represent a choice between “war and peace”.
Their intent is to scare voters away from casting their ballots in favour of the present ruling party, the DPP. Apart from such a message, delivered with the quintessential lack of subtlety associated with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, the island nation has been bombarded with messaging from the other side to try and ensure that the DPP loses the January 2024 Presidential polls as well as control of the Legislative Yuan to the KMT.
Spanning two 4-year terms, President Tsai Ing-wen has not deviated from her consistent stance that only the people of Taiwan and not the CCP have any role to play in shaping the future of the country. Her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has put up Taiwan’s Vice-President William Lai, as its Presidential candidate. His Vice-Presidential pick for the forthcoming polls is Bikhim Hsiao, who was previously the Taiwan Representative to the United States.
Both Lai and Hsiao favour close relations with Washington and other democracies, as does President Tsai. For the CCP, the DPP belief in the right of the people of Taiwan to decide the island nation’s future is anathema, and once Dr Tsai took over as President eight years ago, cut off all official contacts between Beijing and Taipei in a show of pique. President Tsai’s predecessor as Head of State, KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou, concentrated on bettering ties with China, signing trade and other agreements designed to enhance Taiwan’s reliance on the PRC as its major production hub and market.
TAIWAN’S INTEREST IN INDIA GROWS
Interestingly, both in business as well as in government, interest in India has expanded significantly when compared to past decades. In a first, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar dropped the word “informal” when he talked of the relationship between Taiwan and India. In another first, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh publicly called out China as an aggressive power. All this has made it clear that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is looking at Taiwan with interest, and that it is very possible that Cabinet-level officials from Taiwan will be able to visit India, whereas till now, only Deputy Minister level officials were invited.
It is not a coincidence that (apart from the other three Quad members) Indonesia and the Philippines have a large expat community in Taiwan, and that the level and number of high-level visits between Taipei, Manila and Jakarta is at present much higher than between Taipei and Delhi. Interestingly, the PRC lobby in the country has been on overdrive seeking to prevent a proposed influx of Indian expats into Taiwan, using racial slurs and abusive epithets in the process against people from India.
Such transparently motivated lobbying by pro-PRC elements is unlikely to halt the move to get a large number of Indian expats into Taiwan, as such a step would benefit the economy, exactly in the way so many other countries with large Indian expat populations have witnessed without any complaint. Neither is there likely to be any slowdown in the volume of investment flowing into India. Indeed, both in terms of welcoming expats and in channelling investment into India, figures are expected to rise substantially in 2024 itself.
BEIJING IS KMT’S PRIORITY
Should the KMT candidate, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yih, win the Presidential poll in January next, his first priority would be to secure better relations with Beijing. The KMT believes that a warming and intensification of PRC-Taiwan ties would prevent Xi Jinping from carrying out his repeated threat of “uniting Taiwan by force during the next few years”. A prominent media personality who has PRC-friendly views, Jaw Shaw-kong, is Hou’s Vice-Presidential pick.
This stands in contrast to the DPP Vice-Presidential candidate, Bikhim Hsiao, who has over the years built up considerable rapport with US and European leaders in particular. The worry in the minds of voters is whether the US and Europe will have the resolve to challenge China should Xi start to carry out his threat of unification by force. They worry that the quagmire that Ukraine has become, combined with fresh violence in Gaza, may lessen NATO’s appetite for ensuring that Taiwan be protected from a possible PLA attack.
It is in such a context that the close linkages that Bikhim Hsiao has with US and European leaders may reassure voters that President Biden will keep his oft-declared intent to defend Taiwan by force were an attack by the PLA to be carried out. The effort by pro-China communicators is to cast doubt of US and European resolve, and claim that there is no appetite there for involvement in yet another war, now that the fires of Ukraine and Gaza are raging. They have been presenting the Biden-Xi and Blinken-Wang Yi interactions as US kowtows to China. If this view prevails with the electorate, it would be to the advantage of the KMT.
A THREE-PARTY RACE
The third political party in the Presidential fray is the Taiwan People’s Party led by its candidate, Ko Wen-jie. Both Ko and Lai are doctors who switched from medical practice to politics, Lai earlier than Ko. Ko’s pick for Vice-President, Cynthia Wu has spent many years in the UK and is fluent in European languages, although her business family has extensive commercial linkages with the PRC. That it is a three-party race is significant, for this was a factor that in earlier elections went to the benefit of the DPP.
This is what took place the only other time the DPP came to power in Taiwan, which was during the two terms of President Chen Shui-bian, who worked hard at establishing a Taiwanese identity as distinct from a Chinese identity. It was from Chen’s time that “Taiwan” slowly began to replace “Republic of China” in public and international discourse. Since then, it has become commonplace across the world to speak of “Taiwan” rather than the “Republic of China” when speaking about the island nation.
Even as an increasing number of Taiwanese have been to China, of which many have stayed in China sometimes for decades, the appetite for unification with the PRC has waned, with less than 10% of the population now wanting such an outcome. During the Tsai years, attempts at bullying by the other side of the straits has been constant. PLA Air Force aircraft routinely intrude into Taiwan’s air space, while the PLA Navy constantly strays into waters that by international law belong to Taiwan.
Tourist arrivals from the PRC and agricultural produce bought from Taiwan have often been curtailed in efforts to weaken the hold of the DPP over the electorate. Rather than increase the proportion of those who want unification with the PRC, such aggressive moves have had the reverse effect. Taiwanese remain firm on retaining their rights and freedoms, something that would be instantly taken away from them were the PLA to succeed in carrying out Xi’s threat of invading and occupying Taiwan.
For six days before talks between the TPP and the KMT on a joint ticket broke down on live television on November 23, efforts were ongoing mainly by the KMT side to ensure that Ko and Hou fight Lai and Hsiao as a joint ticket. They broke down over Ko’s insistence that he be the Presidential candidate and Hou his Vice-Presidential candidate. Had the KMT agreed to such a condition, ignoring the much smaller imprint of the newly formed TPP in Taiwanese politics, the KMT would have imploded.
On 23 January, both Ko as well as Foxconn founder Terry Guo, who had earlier wished to enter the race himself but seemed afterwards to probably be content with being the Prime Ministerial choice of the Hou-Ko (or Ko-Hou) ticket, should the two prevail over William Lai at the hustings. In a contrarian form of diplomacy, Ko insulted the KMT and its candidate (his intended running mate Hou) repeatedly on national television, over and over claiming that only he as the Presidential nominee of a prospective alliance ( a Ko-Hou ticket) could defeat the DPP.
Finally, the KMT had enough of such insults, and party chief Eric Chu and Presidential nominee Hou walked out of the Hou-Ko-Guo unity talks on 23 November on live television. KMT leaders believe that Ko’s hectoring of Hou may reduce rather than add to his popularity with the voter, while the sympathy factor generated by such abuse may push up Hou’s ratings. As mentioned earlier, however, the problem facing the KMT is that whenever in the past there has been a third party candidate in the fray besides the KMT and the DPP, the latter has prevailed.
The inability of the TPP and the KMT to unite against the DPP has given an advantage to DPP candidate William Lai, who has consistently been outpolling Ko and Hou individually in opinion polls. Across the world, the contest is being presented as a choice between two pro-China parties and a pro-US party. The PRC has been aggressive in seeking the defeat of the DPP, while the Biden administration has thus far been muted in its support for the DPP.
Of course, President Biden has several times reiterated that any attack by the PRC on Taiwan would result in the US entering the fray on behalf of the island nation, a stance repeated during the Xi-Biden talks. Given the volume of (mostly PRC-generated) disinformation, what matters is whether voters in Taiwan believe that the US would intervene in the event of a PLA attack or not.
If belief of Taiwanese voters in US intervention on Taiwan’s behalf is higher than fears of non-intervention, the DPP would have an advantage, especially in a 3-cornered race. On the other hand, KMT’s Hou comes from the south, which is a DPP stronghold, and has strong roots there. The contest between Lai and Hou is likely to be close, while TPP candidate Ko’s inroads into the youth vote make him difficult to write off.
Despite backroom efforts by the CCP to ensure a joint ticket against the DPP, the insistence of TPP leader Ko that he lead the ticket doomed such an outcome. Given the assertive personality of Ko, it is unlikely that he will drop out of the race in favour of Hou, a leader. Were the KMT to have agreed to a Ko-Hou ticket after such a volley of abuse by the TPP leader, even staunch pro-KMT voters may have hesitated to cast their ballots to elect Ko as President, for he is a politician who clearly hates the KMT and its leadership but sought a deal with them in order to come to power.
‘WAR OR PEACE’ IS THE CCP’S BATTLE CRY
Experts familiar with the CCP say that the plan of action is to emphasise the “War or Peace” warning tossed out by the PRC. They add that Xi would put into motion several actions within the next month that would signal aggressive intent should Taiwanese voters choose DPP’s Lai and Hsiao, neither of whom has hidden their preference for the US rather than the PRC as the principal partner for Taiwan, in contrast to the “pro-China” candidates, Hou and Ko.
The weeks ahead promise a stormy period, with several efforts likely to get carried out from across the Taiwan Straits by the United Front department of the PRC in order to try and influence the Presidential and legislative elections sufficiently to defeat the DPP. Should the KMT get a majority in the Legislative Yuan, the Speaker would be a former Mayor, Han Kuo-yu, who would see to it that every proposal of the Lai government is either delayed or made stillborn in the legislature. This is why regaining control of the legislature as well as the Presidency is vital for the DPP so as to ensure effective governance, should the Lai-Hsiao ticket prevail over that of the TPP and the KMT in the Presidential polls due less than two months from now.