Taiwan’s Elections: A Fraught but Not Dire Equilibrium Endures
In the aftermath of Taiwan’s January 13 presidential and legislative elections, Robert Sutter outlines partisan debates that are set to continue and considers a question that drew much media speculation in the lead-up to the election: Will China attack Taiwan?
The Taiwan presidential and legislative elections on January 13, 2024, turned out not to provide the widely discussed inflection point some observers thought they might. Taiwan voters endorsed the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by supporting current vice president William Lai with a strong showing of 40% in a three-candidate race. Lai’s victory was not as convincing as outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide victories in 2016 and 2020, and unlike in those elections, the DPP lost its majority control of the legislature. With 51 seats in the incoming 113-member legislature, the DPP faces the possible alignment of the opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), which will hold 52 seats, with a third party, the Taiwan People’s Party, which will hold 8 seats.
Thus, heated debates over strong partisan differences are set to continue. These include issues such as how to deal with slowing economic growth, whether to close nuclear power plants, and how to address chronic socioeconomic problems like youth unemployment, the rising costs of Taiwan’s aging population, and balancing spending on social welfare and the military.
Pronounced differences will also continue between the DPP and KMT on how to preserve the status quo in cross-strait relations in the face of strong pressure from China. However, there may be more common ground than expected. The election campaign saw the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih juxtapose dialogue with China with robust support for greater defense efforts and closer cooperation with the United States and its allies. Hou sought to reassure audiences at home and abroad that he would not neglect Taiwan’s defenses if cross-strait cooperation were to resume. The DPP’s Lai added to growing common ground between the parties by downplaying past statements favoring Taiwan independence while adhering closely to President Tsai’s firm support for the status quo.
China’s reaction to the election will become clearer in the months leading to Lai’s inauguration in May, but it seems likely to be within the parameters of the pattern of pressure and intimidation Beijing has applied to the DPP administration since the party assumed leadership in 2016. Beijing’s toolbox includes threatening rhetoric, shows of military force, economic sanctions, persuasion of Taiwan’s few diplomatic allies to switch sides, and interference operations in Taiwan. Positive options include advantageous deals for friendly Taiwan businesses, broader employment opportunities for Taiwan professionals and skilled workers on the mainland, and working with the KMT to show how Taiwan’s cooperation with China will benefit Taiwan constituencies.
Will China Attack Taiwan?
The Taiwan election came amid often dire warnings by U.S. and foreign media and policy elites about the danger of a Chinese military attack on Taiwan and war between the United States and China, given the tensions between the two powers and those across the strait. Such commentaries became particularly prominent about four years ago when Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a resident Taiwan expert, argued for “strategic clarity” rather than “strategic ambiguity” in U.S. policy on defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack. The warnings intensified with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and growing awareness that China could do the same to Taiwan. They reached a fever pitch with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August that year, which resulted in four days of Chinese shows of military force around the island. The Taiwan elections this weekend marked the latest stage of this long string of often alarming assessments.
The reasons China would attack Taiwan have focused on China’s enormous military advantage over Taiwan and President Xi Jinping’s heightened determination to unify the island by force if necessary. Related circumstances include Taiwan’s growing identity, separate from China, supporting moves toward independence and the Biden administration and U.S. Congress pursuing numerous incremental advances that support Taiwan against China. Confident of its strengths, Beijing is seen to be waiting for an opportunity to apply decisive force to compel unification. Those seeing China facing a future decline in economic and related power have warned that the danger of attack is now, before China loses its strategic advantage.
Although there has been some discussion of serious difficulties Beijing would face in carrying out a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, the reasons Beijing would not attack Taiwan have received much less attention.
Heading that list of reasons is the continuity in U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China regardless of the election outcome. The United States is committed to defending itself against three sets of challenges from China—military, economic, and governance. In each case, there is a sense of urgency in countering these challenges or face a world order led by China. In each case, Taiwan is vital for U.S. efforts. Meanwhile, as noted above, both major Taiwan presidential candidates have welcomed closer cooperation with United States.
China also remains very reluctant to confront the United States militarily. First, the capacity of Chinese armed forces facing U.S. resistance to carry out a major attack on Taiwan has long been questioned, and the questioning has grown stronger with recent reports of widespread corruption and malfeasance in its military. Second, President Xi is preoccupied with major domestic problems—especially economic problems—in addition to corruption and malfeasance. Third, Biden’s extraordinary posture on coming to Taiwan’s assistance if it is attacked shows that this administration is more likely than any since the depths of the Cold War to become directly involved in countering an attack by China with military force.
Though Xi constantly contests U.S. power and influence, close observation shows that he assiduously avoids direct military confrontation with U.S. forces. Most recently, Chinese warships this month shadowed but did not confront U.S. and Philippine naval forces patrolling together in waters of the South China Sea claimed by China, even though the U.S. patrols with this strategically placed ally were a significant escalation in the U.S. challenge to China’s territorial claims. The reasons for this avoidance are grave risks to fundamental Chinese military, economic, and social conditions; strong economic and high technology dependence with the United States and its allies; and U.S. capacities to interdict Chinese shipping.
Moreover, U.S. deterrence measures over the last two years are much more formidable than in the recent past when it was assumed that U.S. forces would stand alone against a Chinese attack on Taiwan, with even close allies seeking to avoid involvement. Today, Japan and Australia are ready for direct military engagement, as is the United Kingdom. The Philippines and South Korea are more ready to help than ever before. More importantly, NATO and European powers now see a Taiwan conflict as a major issue for them. They increasingly are prepared to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan by making clear they would employ sanctions against the aggressor along the lines of those placed on Russia for invading Ukraine.
A final reason that China is unlikely to attack Taiwan is that shifts toward a Taiwan identity allegedly pushing in the direction of independence are exaggerated. In reality, Taiwan’s moves toward independence are contained for the foreseeable future. In a word, Chinese intimidation has worked, buying time for Beijing to pursue much less risky options for seeking reunification over a longer term. At the same time, the Biden administration is sustaining the United States’ “one China” policy, and like the Taiwan presidential candidates, it avoids serious provocations of China while seeking channels of communications and other guardrails against the danger of war.
In sum, balancing the reasons China would attack Taiwan with the reasons it would not leads to the conclusion that recent trends do not demonstrate grave immediate danger of war. The recently fraught equilibrium will endure.
Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University. His most recent book is Congress and China Policy: Past Episodic, Recent Enduring Influence (2024).