Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections held on January 13 were significant in the Indo-Pacific this year. Unlike the larger elections in Indonesia and India, which will involve larger countries and more voters, Taiwan’s elections demonstrate the thriving democracy in the country.
Taiwan’s democracy, which is now three decades old, is incompatible with Chinese culture, society, or history. The election also marked Taiwan’s first time electing a new president from the same political party as the predecessor, defying threats and intimidation from its powerful neighbor, China. The DPP’s Lai Ching-te, who has been her vice-president for the past four years, will be inaugurated as president in May.
This is notable because the presidency typically moves between major parties as part of the political cycle of optimism, disillusionment, and change. However, the election also highlights the tension between Communist China and Taiwan, with China sending more fighter planes to fly over Taiwanese territory as a tool of intimidation.
The 2022 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised concerns about potential Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan. President Xi Jinping promised unification with Taiwan and urged all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to share in the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
However, Taiwanese voters remained loyal to the DPP president, not switching to the Kuomintang, the oldest and most pro-China party. During the election, all three parties advocated strengthening Taiwan’s defenses, and despite attempts to discredit the DPP government and persuade voters to feel stronger sympathies towards mainland China, no impact was seen. Economic and social issues were top of voters’ concerns, particularly in the parliamentary elections, with disappointing wage growth and rising housing costs.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan and will now need to negotiate for support from the Taiwan People’s Party. However, all three parties favor spending more money on defense, which should not pose a significant problem for President Lai’s foreign or defense policies. China tried to exploit the DPP’s loss by claiming it does not represent the true views of the Taiwanese people. However, opinion polls show that under 2% of Taiwanese people are in favor of unification, and over three-quarters want to keep the status quo. More than 60% identify as Taiwanese.
China has been speculating about increasing its tactics of intimidation, but the reality is that unless it attempts a real invasion or blockade, China has no good options. The Chinese government has refused to hold talks with the Taiwanese government since 2016, and talks will likely remain frozen under President Lai. Economic pressure on Taiwan no longer works, as it is a highly globalized economy that is not dependent on any one market.
China is expected to delay its actions until after the November American presidential election, continuing to harass Taiwan and the Japanese Senkaku islands and areas in the South China Sea. The US president’s attitude towards Taiwan is a key question. In 2021 and 2022, President Joe Biden broke with American conventions by declaring direct intervention in case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Japan’s defense build-up plan and the Philippines’ agreement to give America access to nine bases in its islands make a Chinese attack less viable.
The biggest question is whether the November election will continue these policies, particularly the commitment to Taiwan’s aid in case of an invasion or blockade. The US election on November 5 will be the second most significant election for the future of the Indo-Pacific.