Beijing watches from across the strait as Taiwan heads to the polls
12 Jan 2024|

Tomorrow, the 24 million citizens of Taiwan will vote in an election with implications extending far beyond the Indo-Pacific. Beijing will be watching closely from across the strait as the election unfolds against a recent history of intense military brinkmanship and tensions.

Wielding its considerable economic and political heft, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to isolate Taiwan on the international stage, not least by preventing Taiwanese participation in international organisations. Since 2016, Beijing has influenced the attrition in states that have diplomatic relations with Taipei—from 22 to 13. The aim is to convince the Taiwanese population that global integration is achievable only after ‘reunification’ with the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan has four-year general and local election cycles. Voters cast three votes: one for the president, one for their district representative (73 in total), and one for party-list representatives (34) in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament.

A further six seats in the Legislative Yuan are reserved for Taiwan’s indigenous population, bringing the total to 113 legislators. A first-past-the-post system is used to elect both the president and parliament.

Thus, the executive and legislative branches can be controlled by opposing parties, complicating the crafting of long-term policy and fostering partisan polarisation. The traditional bifurcation of Taiwan’s politics between the two major parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has ended with the emergence of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

Since the early 1990s, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of Taiwan’s population who identify as ‘Taiwanese’ (now 60%), and a corresponding decrease of those who consider themselves to be ‘Chinese’ (2.3%) or hybrid Chinese-Taiwanese (32.3%).

The latest polls show that less than 6% of Taiwanese support independence or unification, and that over 88% would like to maintain the status quo.

So, Taiwan’s political parties are divided not by familiar left–right distinctions but by their approach to relations with the PRC. The KMT is seen as more pro-engagement with Beijing (characterised as ‘blue’), while the DPP is more PRC-sceptic (‘green’). The TPP, associated with cyan and white, attempts to straddle both positions.

Beijing’s efforts to influence the Taiwanese electorate stretch back to the island’s inaugural presidential election in 1996, when the People’s Liberation Army launched ballistic missiles near Taiwan to deter voters from supporting former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui.

This time, the PRC has employed a multi-pronged strategy of grey-zone aggression.

Known in the PRC military lexicon as ‘political warfare’, grey-zone activities fall within the Chinese doctrine of the ‘three warfares’.

The first, public opinion warfare, moulds favourable public perceptions of the PRC and the benefits of unification, while discrediting independence narratives. Beijing co-opts social media influencers and traditional pro-PRC media conglomerates, or ‘red media’, to disseminate PRC-friendly content and bolster its favoured political candidates. PRC agents flood Taiwan’s media ecosystem with disinformation, and bots artificially amplify journalism that promotes scepticism over US security commitments to Taiwan.

Throughout October 2023, for example, disinformation purporting to show the conflict in Gaza was circulated to highlight the horrors of war and promote a KMT narrative that peace can only be sustained through closer ties with the PRC.

In the same month, the PRC extended a trade barrier investigation against Taiwan to the eve of Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections—a pointed reminder of the mainland’s importance to Taiwan as its dominant trading partner.

An example of the PRC’s ongoing legal warfare against Taiwan is its 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which mandates Beijing’s desire to bring Taiwan under its own jurisdiction, and, if nonviolent avenues to ‘reunification’ fail, sanctions the use of force.

Psychological warfare includes invasive military exercises by the PLA around Taiwan’s periphery, ballistic missile overflights, and incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), all of which have increased markedly in frequency since 2022. PLA sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ now take place on a near-daily basis. Psychological warfare aims to sap the Taiwanese people’s will to resist, sow societal confusion and discord, and instil a perpetual sense of crisis.

The battlefield of these three warfares is Taiwanese hearts and minds. The ideal, to ‘win without fighting’, would be for ‘Taiwanese compatriots’ to concede willingly to annexation. For the 2024 election, this translates to ‘anyone but the DPP’.

As of 3 January 2024, an aggregate of nationwide polls shows the DPP’s presidential nominee and current vice president, William Lai, leading the presidential race at 38.9%. Lai is a Harvard-educated former physician. His ratings have increased since the announcement as his running partner of Hsiao Bi-khim, whose ‘cat warrior’ diplomacy—developed in response to the CCP’s aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats—emphasises Taiwan’s commitment to human rights and democratic values, and distinguishes its international identity as separate from the PRC.

Beijing has labelled the DPP ticket a ‘union of separatists’ and has threatened that an administration under Lai may ‘bring war to Taiwan’. If Lai becomes president, Beijing will continue as it has since 2016: official channels of communication will remain frozen, and it will pursue a carrot-and-stick approach combining economically preferential policies to attract young Taiwanese talent to the PRC with punitive sanctions to target Taiwanese industry and individuals.

The PLA will likely intensify military activities around the island to signal Beijing’s displeasure.

A KMT administration would see Taiwan return to the ‘1992 Consensus’, likely taking the spotlight off the independence issue and leading to a temporary thawing in cross-strait relations. Cross-strait trade and tourism might experience a temporary flourishing. It would also afford the PRC greater economic leverage and cultural influence in Taiwan.

Any possible rapprochement, however, would be constrained by a fundamentally irreconcilable conflict: that the Taiwanese public do not wish to cede autonomy to Beijing, and the CCP’s singular interest in friendly relations with Taiwan lies in its ambitions to annex it.

A TPP victory appears unlikely. But, if the party’s leader, Ko Wen-je, were able to find a mutually acceptable framework for resuming dialogue with Beijing, the countries may be able to open channels of trade and cooperation, leading to a cooling of cross-strait tensions.