Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, experts have darkly warned of a golden opportunity for China—to seize Taiwan once and for all. And Beijing has been making menacing noises for over a year—even warning Taiwanese voters not to vote for the candidate most hostile to China. Over the weekend, they did exactly that. Is this the excuse Beijing needs to finally annex Taiwan? Can the world deal with one more war among so many? Or is it all much ado about not much of anything?
Taiwan-China: A brief history
Taiwan is an island nation that is situated roughly 160 km off the southeastern coast of China—with the 180-km wide Taiwan Strait separating the two countries. It is a self-ruled country with a population of approximately 24 million people.
Here’s where it’s located on the map:
The roots of the conflict: Considering their proximity, China and Taiwan share a long history. According to historical sources, the island first came under Chinese occupation in the 17th century. Then in 1895, it became a Japanese colony after the Qing dynasty lost the first Sino-Japanese war.
Taiwan was under Japan’s rule till World War II—after which the latter relinquished control. China took over the island once again—which was then led by a nationalist party, Kuomintang or KMT, and its leader General Chiang Kai-shek. It was right in the middle of a civil war between KMT and Mao Zedong’s Communist party—which the former lost:
When the communists won in 1949, Chiang and what was left of the nationalist party, known as the Kuomintang or KMT, fled to Taiwan, where they ruled for several decades. They called this the Republic of China, a name Taiwan has retained.
Chiang always hoped to reconquer mainland China, but that never happened.
Point to note: China refers to this exact history to claim Taiwan as part of its territory—but the Taiwanese disagree:
[T]he Taiwanese point to the same history to argue that they were not part of the modern Chinese state that was first formed after the revolution in 1911—or the People's Republic of China that was established under Mao in 1949.
Taiwan election: The basic deets
Taiwan was under martial law until 1987 and did not hold its first direct presidential election until 1996. So the presidential and parliamentary elections held on Saturday are no mean achievement—and testimony to its dogged commitment to democracy.
The parties: Three main parties contested the latest elections: the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP). Here’s a quick round up of their electoral history:
- As we noted before, the KMT-led by Chiang Kai-shek—ruled Taiwan with an iron first until 1991. And it wins the first election in 1996.
- But in 2000, it is ousted by the DPP—made up of KMT dissidents.
- The two parties have played musical chairs ever since—taking turns at the presidency.
- The TPP is a newcomer—established in 2019—founded by surgeon-turned-politician Ko Wen-je. The TPP has not won an election—and it did not form an alliance with the KMT this time around.
The political stakes: There are any number of domestic issues at play. But in the eyes of the world, what matters most is their stance toward China:
- The DPP candidate is vice president Lai Ching-te. He “rejects China’s sovereignty claims over the island”—and has described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence.” Needless to say, Beijing loathes him and the DPP.
- Interestingly, although the KMT led the original rebellion against China and the Communist Party—its leader Hou Yu-ih is softest on Beijing: “The KMT supports the stance that Taiwan and China belong to one single China but each side can interpret what that means, a position welcomed by Beijing.”
- The TPP leader Ko Wen-je claims to represent the “middle path”—and to be the only candidate acceptable to both Beijing and Washington.
- Both Hou and Ko say Lai is too confrontational with the Chinese—and favour closer and more amicable ties with China.
Point to note: The vast majority of Taiwanese voters favour maintaining the ambiguous status quo—“neither formally declaring independence nor becoming part of China.” But Lai has gone much further in his campaign—defining the election as a choice between “allowing Taiwan to continue to move forward on the road of democracy” or “walking into the embrace of China.” He denies any plan for Taiwanese independence—only because “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country” and “not subordinate” to Beijing. So yikes!
The outcome: As predicted by opinion polls, the Lai-led DPP scored a convincing victory. It is an unprecedented third consecutive victory for any Taiwanese party. Lai won comfortably with 40% of the vote.
But, but, but: KMT scored 33% and TPP did well with 26%. In other words, if the two opposition parties had formed an alliance, the outcome may have been different. Also this: Before the election, the DPP had a majority in parliament with 63 seats. The KMT had 38 seats and the TPP five. The DPP has lost control of parliament—dropping to 51 seats. However, that may have more to do with anger at rising house prices, stagnant wages and shrinking job opportunities—not Lai’s position on China.
Presumably, China is pissed off with the win…
Yes, especially since the Taiwanese ignored all its dire warnings. Beijing called Lai a separatist and a “troublemaker”—and told voters that the election was “a choice between war and peace.” This comes on the heels of a series of aggressive gestures—including holding war exercises that repeatedly violated Taiwan’s airspace. The cherry on this cake: In his New Year’s Eve speech, President Xi declared “the reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability.”
Xi’s pet peeve: The Taiwan issue has heated up in recent years primarily due to Xi’s sabre-rattling. He has made reunification central to the “Chinese Dream” of “national rejuvenation.” A great part of this is a result of his increasing domestic woes:
With the Chinese economy faltering, Xi is no longer able (or willing) to justify his repression the way his predecessors once did—by providing rapid gains in welfare—and so he appeals instead to nationalist fervour to build support for his regime. Talk of taking back Taiwan serves that end.
Also this: Some experts claim that Xi’s hostility toward Taiwan reflects his contempt for any kind of democracy. His rule has been marked by a significant shift back toward old-style authoritarianism—with a “decreasing tolerance for any form of dissent, civic action, or even debate within China.” It is also why the old system of ‘one country, two systems’—which afforded Hong Kong some measure of autonomy—has been torn down.
Many say Taiwan is next on Xi’s list—purely for ideological reasons:
Democracy in Taiwan “doesn’t have to be a problem if they don’t want it to be,” [says Chinese foreign policy expert] Sulmaan Khan… “There are ways a savvy ideologue could play down the significance of these elections, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, because that’s not the brand of ideology that is in fashion in Beijing right now.”
The greatest cause for Chinese unhappiness: is the fact that Taiwan is simply becoming less “Chinese” with each passing generation. The nearly 40,000 statues of Chiang Kai-Shek are rapidly disappearing. His party KMT’s voter base—which speaks Mandarin and still identifies as Chinese—is now middle aged. Others are more likely to view China as a colonising power—much like Britain.
Younger Taiwanese are also invested in a kind of modernity—that the Communist Party disdains as Western corruption. They speak fluent English and are passionate about the environment and LGBTQ rights. They love DPP vice-presidential candidate, Hsiao Bi-khim—who was born in Japan to an American mother and Taiwanese father—and would be loathed in China.
Above all this: Most Taiwanese want peace—not to pacify China—but to continue on their very different path:
Most Taiwanese see their future elsewhere… During the campaign, any identification with China seemed to have been erased. Though Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, a holdover from when Chinese nationalists fled there, R.O.C. references were hard to find. At Mr. Lai’s rallies, supporters wore shimmering green jackets with “Team Taiwan” written in English across the back.
Point to note: After the election results came out, the South Pacific country Nauru announced that it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan and would recognise China instead. The country’s president David Adeang said it was “in the best interests of the country” to do so.
So does this mean Beijing will attack?
Hmm, there have been plenty of columns warning of an all-out war. For example, this Financial Times op-ed claims:
China is visibly preparing to invade Taiwan. Xi’s nationalistic rhetoric is creating a dangerous mixture of hubris and paranoia in Beijing. Tong Zhao, an academic, worries that China’s leader is “boxing himself in” over Taiwan. But if Xi were to pull the trigger on Taiwan — and America entered the conflict, as President Joe Biden has promised — the Chinese leader would have started a third world war, with incalculable consequences for his own country and the wider world.
But, but, but: Most experts think it is unlikely. As we explained in this Big Story, Xi has plenty of problems on his plate—including a slowing economy. Taking back Taiwan will involve a complicated military campaign that he can’t afford. But he is expected to strongly express his displeasure:
Chinese leader Xi Jinping “is unlikely to accept this defeat gracefully,” said [China expert] Craig Singleton… “It probably won’t take long for Beijing to register its anger over the result, and its response could be swift and severe,” he said.. with possible actions including military drills, new trade restrictions on Taiwanese companies, and intensified cyberattacks on Taiwanese infrastructure.
In other words, China-Taiwan relations are expected to remain turbulent—with the US adding to the unpredictable mix.
And Taiwan is a US ally, yes?
Well, not formally. There is no military treaty that requires the US to come to the rescue of Taiwan if it is invaded—unlike the case of NATO nations. That said, Washington’s support for Taiwan has remained steady. But it has grown more or less fervent based on its relationship with Beijing—and who is in the White House.
The Biden bet: The current president has been particularly aggressive in backing Taipei—signing off on a $80 million grant to Taiwan for the purchase of US military equipment. Why this was notable:
The $80m is not a loan. It comes from American taxpayers. For the first time in more than 40 years, America is using its own money to send weapons to a place it officially doesn't recognise. This is happening under a programme called foreign military finance (FMF)... until now it has only ever been given to countries or organisations recognised by the United Nations. Taiwan is not.
Now, Biden insists he does not recognise Taiwanese independence—but his plan has been to “arm it to its teeth.”
OTOH, a Trump White House: is not sold on the value of Taiwan to the US—or the global supply chain:
A victory for former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has criticised Taiwan for stealing the United States’ semiconductor industry and reportedly asked what benefit could be derived from defending Taiwan, could prompt Xi to conclude that he would not have to factor in U.S. intervention, which would dramatically alter his calculus.
The bottomline: We leave the last word to David Sacks in Foreign Affairs, “The outcome of Taiwan’s election may do little to change Xi’s calculus. Indeed, it may not even be the most important election of the year for the island’s security. Rather, that could be the U.S. presidential election in November.”
BBC News has a good overview of the history between China and Taiwan. CNN has a breakdown of the different parties that stood for the elections. NBC News has more on Lai Ching-te and why Beijing dislikes him. The Atlantic looks at President Xi Jinping’s hostility towards Taiwan. New York Times takes a look at what’s next for the country. Foreign Affairs (paywall) analyses why these elections won’t really change much.