The outcome of the recent election for president of Taiwan represents both a rebuff and a challenge to China.
Voters in Taiwan, formally the Republic of China and home to about 24 million people, solidly rejected threats from the People’s Republic of China, which has a population of nearly 1.5 billion and rules the island with an iron fist. “Michael” Lai Ching-te won the presidency of the ROC by a plurality in a hard-fought three-way race in which the opposition Kuomintang, the nationalist party that once controlled the mainland, gained a slim grip over the legislative yuan.
Close as it was, the election of Lai Ching-te may be seen as a victory for democracy in the face of threats from Beijing to invade the island, as well as a referendum on how to approach China’s claims in the restive region. Lai, who previously served as vice president under the outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, has made clear he will govern Taiwan as a sovereign, independent entity. Like Tsai, however, he will avoid challenging Beijing by declaring Taiwan’s “independence” as a separate nation.
Lai’s leading opponent, the candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT), Hou Yu-ih, has called for moderation and dialogue with the mainland. At the same time, Hou rejected a scheme for national “unity” that President Xi seeks as a step on the way to Beijing rule. Lai realized, reluctantly, there was no point in rocking the boat while KMT business interests, among others, were making enormous profits from investment in China as well as from trade, notably in semiconductors and other electronic items.
The repercussions of the Taiwan election extend across the region. In Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has got to be worried about the stubborn insistence of such a capitalist enclave supporting a president-elect who would like to cast off all pretense of the island’s existence as a PRC province and declare independence. He’s not going to do that, but if Beijing tries to take over Taiwan by force, we may be sure that Kim would offer whole-hearted support to Beijing just as he’s supporting the Russians in Ukraine with arms and missiles.
Just as worrisome, Kim could seize the moment to stage his long-feared assault on South Korea, firing missiles as he has long threatened against American and South Korean bases. He might even tip his missiles with nuclear warheads, waging the first nuclear war since the American atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The pretext could be that he has to wage war against American and South Korean forces that might support Taiwan in a clash with China. At the least, the threat of North Korean attack could be enough for American forces not to leave their bases in South Korea. President Biden has repeatedly promised America’s “commitment” to defense of the island, but he might have to deploy forces from elsewhere in the region.
Might Kim also seize the moment of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to attack Japan? Certainly he sees Japan as an enemy, along with the U.S. and South Korea. That prospect, however, is unlikely. The Japanese could well attack North Korea with the support of Americans on major bases, the navy at Yokosuka and the air force and marines on Okinawa. The Japanese, along with the Americans, would rise to Taiwan’s defense, while the South Koreans, reluctant to offend Beijing, by far the South’s biggest trading partner, might well hold back.
For Kim, however, the temptation to invade the South, after years of tests of sophisticated missiles and artillery pieces and fabrication of as many as 100 nuclear warheads, might be overwhelming.
Before war breaks out, however, surely Beijing will try to exploit the serious divisions inside Taiwan. Chinese planes and ships have already staged massive exercises around the island; that’s to be expected. Beijing may not live up to its rhetorical nonsense about the election as a choice between war or peace, but we may expect Xi to order periodic intimidation by air and naval exercises. One goal will be to deepen divisions between Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party and Hou’s Kuomintang, which won a slim majority over the DPP in Taiwan’s legislative yuan, or parliament.
Beijing will also count on the failure of Lai to win a majority of the votes for president. Let us not forget that Hou might have won had a third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je, not insisted on campaigning as leader of his own Taiwan People’s Party. The final tally shows Lai with 40.1 percent of the votes versus 33.5 percent for Hou and 26.5 percent for Ko, who’s all for dialogue with Beijing but not at the expense of Taiwan’s “autonomy.”
The vote count for both the presidency and the legislative yuan means Lai will have to be extremely careful in dealing with political foes at home as well as with Beijing. In his quest for popularity, he may prefer to give an appearance, at least, of prioritizing domestic issues, including wages, rising prices and youth unemployment. Those issues count for more among Taiwan voters than vague threats from the mainland. They’re accustomed to the din of rhetoric put out by Xi’s propaganda machine, and they’re able to shrug it off. It’s as though Beijing has cried “wolf” so often that it’s easy not to take the latest exercises too seriously.
If push does come to shove with Beijing, Lai will have one advantage, in the form of his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim. Vice President-elect Hsiao served for three years as “Taiwanese representative to the United States,” a title reflecting the fact that Taiwan and Washington have not had formal diplomatic relations since President Carter recognized the PRC and withdrew recognition from Taiwan.
American-educated and the daughter of a Taiwanese father and an American mother, Hsiao was highly effective as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador. She may be expected to tighten the bond with Washington while Lai fends off Beijing’s demands. That’s even more reason to cheer his — and her — victory in a classic exercise of democratic freedom.
Her mission will be to proselytize for American arms and advice, reminding America, perhaps distracted by wars in Ukraine and Israel, of Washington’s undying “commitment” to an island that’s been on America’s side despite Carter’s decision in 1978 to transfer diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He is currently a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea, and is the author of several books about Asian affairs.
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