The results of the Taiwan election are in - what will China do next?Sam Boyle, Consultant
In what has been described as the ‘year of the election’, Taiwan was one of the first to take to the polls. The election result was too close to call ahead of the vote on Saturday, however the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won its third consecutive presidential term – the first party to do so since direct elections were introduced in 1996. Lai Ching-te beat the nationalist Kuomintang candidate Hou Yu-ih and wildcard candidate Ko Wen-je, of the new centre-left Taiwan’s People Party.
In his victory speech, Mr Lai thanked the people of Taiwan and his fellow candidates, calling the election “one of the first and most highly anticipated elections of 2024” and that the result was a “victory for the community of democracies.” Lai also highlighted the work his party still needed to do, due to their loss of control over the country’s parliament, and stated he is willing to work with the opposition parties for the benefit of the people of Taiwan.
The continued support for the DPP is a clear sign that the anti-China narrative continues to outweigh pro-China sentiment in Taiwanese society. China had tried to minimise it ahead of the election, intimidating voters to “make the right choice”. China also gave Taiwan a taste of what is potentially to come ahead of the election by imposing sanctions on Taiwanese exports, flying suspected spy balloons over the island (similar to what was seen in the US last year), and increasing their disinformation campaigns. One disinformation campaign, in the run up to the election, focused on defaming and slandering the outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, accusing her of having multiple affairs and illegitimate children (none of which are substantiated with any evidence to back them up) in a last minute bid to tip the balance of the vote.
However, the Taiwanese were not to be swayed by China’s propaganda, leading to a record 758,000 train tickets being sold as voters flocked to their home constituencies to cast their votes. Despite the ongoing support for the pro-democracy party, there are still a significant number who oppose the DPP (evident through them losing their majority) and fear the party’s provocative nature will lead to a war with China. Or Taiwan becoming the next Ukraine, as described by one KMT voter.
Attentions will now turn to how China will continue to increase pressure on Taiwan and equally how Taiwan will navigate this pressure over the next four years. Given that Mr Lai and the DPP lost the majority held in parliament, this could have implications for getting legislation and spending passed. Xi Jinping’s government has already warned the US, the UK, Japan, and a number of other Western countries not to interfere in China’s “internal affairs” as they each congratulated Mr Lai for his victory; the US stated his victory reinforced and defended the “robust democratic system and electoral process.” So far, the threats have been just verbal, and with China’s military leadership repeatedly replaced due to corruption allegations, it is unlikely that these will be translated into robust action from Xi Jinping and his government in the immediate future.
Not only will the election result impact China’s relationship with Taiwan, but it could also impact China’s relationship with the US. Following Saturday’s result, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Mr Lai and reaffirmed that the US is “committed to maintaining cross-strait peace and stability” and that collaboration would “further [their] longstanding unofficial relationship.” China then reacted to this by claiming that the comments violate the US’s promise to maintain “only cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations” with Taiwan. To add fuel to the fire, a high-level US delegation for former top officials was sent to Taiwan on Sunday, backed by President Joe Biden, to meet leading politicians and to discuss matters around Taiwan’s self-defence as well as cooperation in trade and technology.
The world will be watching with anticipation for what Mr Lai’s first moves as President will be. On China’s part, less than 48 hours after the DPP declared victory, Beijing struck back by securing Nauru as an ally as its President announced that they would no longer recognise Taiwan as a nation in its own right.
Added to this, increased military presence is likely given past events and the US’s prediction that China are preparing for a 2027 invasion - a claim denied by Xi. An invasion, whenever it may be, would have huge ramifications for the rest of the world, as expert economist recently predicted that the economic impact of a war in the Taiwan Strait would be larger than the Covid-19 pandemic and the global financial crisis. The ramifications of last weekend’s election would have been momentous in any year. With ongoing crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, any geopolitical slack is fast pulled tight.