Taiwan votes for continuity with accountability

Largely as expected, Vice President Lai Ching-te (aka William Lai) won Taiwan’s presidential elections on Saturday with 40.1% of the vote, earning his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) an unprecedented third consecutive term.

The Harvard-educated former doctor and mayor will replace outgoing President Tsai in May.

Voters were concerned about familiar issues like housing and wages, but the dominant theme was, of course, China. That’s inevitable when your nuclear-armed neighbour and top trading partner considers you a breakaway province.

But China was also front of mind because China wanted to be front of mind, calling the election a choice between war and peace, and Lai a dangerous separatist. It was all aimed at limiting Taiwan’s options and shaping its choices.

Still, Lai gave a pretty measured victory address on Saturday night, vowing to “replace confrontation with dialogue” but also to “safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China“.

And the world’s responses have been pretty predictable, too:

  • 🇨🇳 China reiterated its opposition to “separatist activities“, while relishing the fact that Lai’s party lost its legislative majority
  • 🇺🇸 The US congratulated Lai and sent an unofficial delegation to Taiwan in line with past practice
  • 🇷🇺 Russia reaffirmed its view that Taiwan is an integral part of China, prompting Taiwan to accuse Russia of becoming “a thug of the Chinese Communist regime” (🔥🔥🔥), and
  • 🌏 Others (like JapanFrancethe UK, and the EU) welcomed Taiwan’s elections, prompting varying degrees of pushback from Beijing.

After years of being conditioned to expect bold electoral plot twists and wildly inaccurate polling, this whole exercise has been refreshingly predictable to date.


So… what can we expect from President Lai and China in the months ahead?

Lai once called himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” (hence China’s ire), but he’s moderated his stance as vice president and is promising more of the same as president. This moderation is aimed at:

  • preserving stability with China
  • assuaging Taiwan’s backers in the US, and
  • reassuring a Taiwanese population spooked by crackdowns in Hong Kong, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a more confrontational China.

As for China, it continues to see Taiwan as a red-line issue because of what Taiwan is (a visible example of defiance), where it is (right in China’s grill), and what Taiwan has (dominance across advanced semiconductor manufacturing).

So China will reassert its claims over Taiwan, but it also needs to nurture US-China stability while addressing its own mounting challenges back home.

This means we can expect China to pressure Taiwan, but without rocking the boat too much. And one example has just emerged, with reports China has poached one of Taiwan’s 12 remaining formal diplomatic partners: the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru.

But all in all, this election extends the increasingly fragile status quo:

  • Taiwan continues to function like an independent country, but without formally declaring independence
  • The US continues to function like Taiwan’s ally, but without formally promising to defend it, and
  • This all leaves China with just enough hope for peaceful ‘reunification’, but just enough unease to continue its vast military modernisation.

Also worth noting:

  • Taiwan’s more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang opposition came second with 33.5%. A relatively new third party attracted support from younger voters, winning 26% of the vote.
  • China exercised varying degrees of control over Taiwan for ~200 years until 1895, while the modern day People’s Republic of China has never controlled Taiwan. Interestingly, early Chinese Communist Party statements actually called for Taiwanese independence (from Japan).
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