Cross-Strait relations will remain the top priority for Taiwan’s new President

William Lai Ching-te must also manage his friends and adversaries at home

William Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim wave to supporters during the Presidential Campaign in Taiwan on January 11, 2024 (Facebook Photo)

From The Diplomat
Washington DC, January 17, 2024

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into US-Asia policy. The following conversation was with Dr Benjamin Tsai, Senior Associate at TD International (TDI) and former US Government Intelligence Officer on Northeast Asia and the Middle East, the 397th in The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.

What are the top three takeaways from Taiwan’s Presidential elections? 

First, the election demonstrated the vibrancy and maturity of Taiwan’s democratic values and process. Turnout was about 72%, with no violence or allegations of irregularities. The campaign debates were substantive, rigorous, and respectful.

Election results showed that voters wanted checks and balances. Although voters re-elected the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), its Presidential candidate William Lai Ching-te received only 40%  of the votes. The DPP lost its majority in the Legislature.

Second, the three major parties’ positions on Cross-Strait relations shared quite a bit of common ground despite fierce debate on the topic. Maintaining the status quo in terms of Taiwan’s status is the broad political consensus, and no party supported formal independence or unification in the foreseeable future.

The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) accepts the “1992 Consensus” as a basis for dialogue with mainland China, but the party rejects the “One Country, Two Systems” unification model put forward by Beijing. The “1992 Consensus” posits that both sides of the Strait belong to “One China,” but each side is free to interpret whether “China” means the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name).

Third, there was significant voter dissatisfaction with the two largest parties in Taiwan, the DPP and KMT. As a result, third-party Presidential candidate Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) did better than expected, receiving about 26% of the votes. The TPP increased its presence in the Legislature from five to eight seats.

What will be the main near-term priorities of the DPP? 

Lai will closely coordinate his Cross-Strait and defence policies with both political parties in the US in the run-up to the November 2024 elections in the United States. The winner of the US Presidential election is likely to continue Washington’s current policy of deterrence and containment toward China, and Lai will express his full support for this approach. Vice President-Elect Hsiao Bi-khim will play a leading role in outreach to the US because of her previous position as Taiwan’s representative to Washington.

Domestically, Lai needs to win back young voters, many of whom switched their support for Ko Wen-je. Lai has proposed policies to help the youth and young families, such as financial assistance for housing, education, and childcare.

Examine Beijing’s reaction to Taiwan’s election outcomes and approach in engaging the DPP in 2024 

Beijing will not hold talks with the DPP administration because the DPP rejects the “1992 Consensus.” Beijing may view Lai as even more pro-independence than President Tsai Ing-wen because of his past support for Taiwan’s independence and some of the rhetoric during the campaign.

Beijing has shown equal animus toward Hsiao, who is sanctioned by the PRC for allegedly supporting Taiwan’s independence. The real reason is probably that Hsiao was very successful in facilitating closer ties between Taipei and Washington.

Nevertheless, Beijing may be somewhat relieved that Lai only received 40% of the vote and that the DPP lost its majority in the Legislature. The PRC Taiwan Affairs Office statement following the election on January 13 noted that the “DPP does not represent mainstream opinion in Taiwan.”

Beijing is likely to engage with KMT and TPP politicians and with local government leaders to promote cultural and economic exchanges since the KMT controls 13 of the 22 municipal and county governments in Taiwan.

Identify challenges and opportunities facing the DPP presidency and Taiwan’s legislature

The Lai administration will find it challenging to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait without an engagement element in its Cross-Strait policy. Lai says that he is open to dialogue but puts the blame on Beijing for rejecting contact with the DPP.

The DPP government under Lai could give local governments, especially those controlled by the KM, more leeway to pursue economic and cultural cooperation with the mainland, such as sister-city arrangements. The opposition parties have accused the DPP of viewing Cross-Strait engagement as a zero-sum game, and Lai has an opportunity to change the DPP’s image as an “anti-China” party.

The TPP has a unique opportunity to play a kingmaker role because neither the DPP nor the KMT controls the Legislature. The TPP and KMT have an opportunity to demonstrate that they can provide effective oversight and help promote Cross-Strait economic and people-to-people exchanges.

Assess how the DPP will likely navigate relations with the United States, Cross-Strait relations, and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework 

Working with the US to contain and deter Beijing is a fundamental element of Lai’s Cross-Strait policy. During the campaign, Lai and Hsiao spoke extensively about building up Taiwan’s indigenous defence capabilities, reducing Taiwan’s economic dependence on the PRC, and forming alliances with “nations with shared values” to reduce China’s global influence. Lai is open to dialogue with Beijing, but the core of his Cross-Strait policy is deterrence rather than engagement. Lai and Hsiao framed their Cross-Strait and foreign policies in terms of a choice between authoritarianism and democracy, with Taiwan firmly in the democratic camp. Lai will prioritise US support, without which his policies would not work.

All three major political parties in Taiwan reject the “One Country, Two Systems” framework in part because of the 2020 National Security Law in Hong Kong.

It is a “non-starter” in Taiwan, and there are signs that even PRC leaders realise this.

In recent speeches, Xi Jinping has largely avoided using the formulation in reference to Taiwan, although Beijing cannot openly repudiate this model.

The above piece appeared in the Web Edition of The Diplomat on January 16, 2024.

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