Will Taiwan Ever Break Free from China’s Forever Trap?

Taiwan’s presidential election on 13 January is a crucial moment for the country’s stability, peace, and democracy. The outcome could either strengthen democracy and create renewed regional confidence or worsen the risks of unchecked aggressions and miscalculations.

The race determines Taiwan’s foreign policy, national security, and future ties with China and the US. The stakes are not just on Taiwan’s future and freedom to choose its own direction, but also the future of global security and the region’s resolve in securing the rules-based order and democracy itself.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate William Lai Ching-te remains the frontrunner, alongside his running mate, US ambassador Hsiao Bi-khim. Opposition opponents from the Kuomintang (KMT) party, Hou Yu-ih and Jaw Shaw-kong, have gained momentum by portraying DPP’s complacency, growing ignorance, and arrogance. The election is dominated by the prospect of war, with each contender arguing that they alone can mitigate and prevent it.

Under outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s self-governance and democratic ideals of respecting the will of the Taiwanese people are reflected in her expansion of Taiwan’s international presence and defense capabilities despite Beijing’s efforts to isolate her regime and legitimacy.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT have different strategies for managing Taiwan’s relationship with China. The DPP advocates for a deterrence strategy, while the KMT advocates for dialogue, diplomacy, and a long-term non-confrontational approach to avoid Beijing’s ire. Both candidates believe their approach is most reliable in preventing direct aggression and preserving conflict management.

DPP’s William Lai reiterates Taiwan’s independence and sovereignty, stating that the future of Taiwan must be determined through democratic platforms. KMT’s Hou Yu-ih supports the 1992 consensus and seeks closer economic ties with China. TPP’s Ko Wen-je argues that the DPP is pro-war and the KMT too deferential to China, seeking to strike a balance and maintain closer ties with Beijing.

All three candidates acknowledge potential conflict risks for Taiwan and support raising the defense budget. The KMT argues that war can only be prevented by accepting Taiwan’s independence from China and mitigating tensions through closer economic relations. The KMT supports the 1992 Consensus and its “One China” notion, but the majority worry that endorsing this consensus could undermine Taiwan’s status as a separate political entity and open the door for a political union with China.

KMT has revived its influence with majority wins in local councils and mayoralties in 2022, demonstrating its ability to counter Chinese military incursions, election meddling, and disinformation. The Chinese state and affiliated entities are amplifying anti-US content in Taiwan, according to Chih hao Yu, co-director of the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG). William Lai has highlighted the unprecedented scale of Beijing’s interference in the election, ranging from ingrained propaganda to cognitive warfare and fake news, along with sustained military intimidation.

Taiwanese counter-influence efforts have focused on local Chinese governments hosting Taiwanese officials on all-expenses paid visits, subsidised religious tours of Chinese temples, support for triad groups and indigenous communities, pressure on Taiwanese businesspeople in China, and information warfare campaigns. The defense ministry has begun disclosing the activity of Chinese military balloons in its daily updates, denouncing such flights as part of cognitive warfare to affect the morale of the Taiwanese people.

Bloomberg Economics modelling suggests that a Chinese invasion will cost the global economy more than USD10 trillion, more than the Ukraine war and the Covid pandemic. Taiwan will eventually be reunited with China, and Xi’s fast closing time frame may open new risks of force for Beijing. China has often proposed to Taiwan that if the island accepts the 1992 consensus, cross-strait tensions will reduce, and the KMT seems to be aligned with this approach.

Taiwan’s approach to China, particularly under the KMT rule, could potentially set back its leverage for at least a decade and give Beijing the ultimate prize of Taiwan reunification against the will of the Taiwanese people. The security dilemma facing Taiwan is worsened by the two-pronged conflict in Europe and the Middle East and a resurgent Pyongyang. The Afghanistan withdrawal has cast doubt on Washington’s support for allies, and some accuse Washington of “weaponising” Taiwan in its quest to contain Beijing’s expansionism. Others predict that even if the battle is won against a Chinese forceful invasion, it would be a pyrrhic victory and Taiwan would remain as scorched earth.

The efficacy and limits of Taiwan’s playbook and leverage will depend on its porcupine strategy, the unsinkable aircraft carrier tag, regional neighbour extended deterrence with Seoul and Tokyo, the prospect of a nuclear armed Taiwan, and total Washington deterrence. However, under KMT rule, these direct capacities will likely diminish, and the space to leverage on these direct capacities will likely diminish.

The overwhelming population, especially the young, is not buying the argument, especially since the events in Hong Kong since 2019. A recent survey by Academia Sinica found that only 9.3% of respondents agreed that China is a trustworthy country, while 55.3% disagreed. A recent poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that 61% of Taiwanese adults agreed that containment of China is necessary for Taiwan.

Taiwanese Nationalist Party (KMT) politicians have questioned President Tsai Ing-wen’s plan to strengthen national security, which includes extending conscription, adopting asymmetric warfare doctrine, developing Taiwan’s own submarine fleet, and diversifying the economy away from China. To avoid conflict, KMT should reduce tensions with Beijing by shortening the length of national service and reviewing the submarine project.

The KMT has chosen a different path in dealing with China, blocking the DPP government’s attempt to import American submarines in the 2000s and supporting the restarting of talks with China on the controversial trade deal. If KMT wins, deterrence of Taiwan will dwindle, creating ripple effects on other defensive and preventive mechanisms.

The possibility of nuclearization or enhancing Taiwan’s submarine project will cease, with potential benefits in economic and cultural ties under KMT offset by Taiwan’s critical status as a democracy and high technology domain. A softening of Taiwan’s stance and renewed KMT approach will allow Beijing to exploit opportunities. Taiwan’s internal demographic reality further entraps Beijing and Xi, with younger demographics favoring the DPP.

A victory for KMT, especially when adding the prospect of a Biden loss in the elections later this year, might mean a more dangerous setting for Taipei, where deterrent capacity and pledges will dwindle. The DPP must project a new dimension to tackle Beijing’s efforts to exert influence and change the course in domestic politics.

Youth nationalist sentiments and a strong stance for a future free from Beijing dictate are being challenged by Beijing’s strategic efforts to break the hardline link with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). New narratives and tailored approaches have been targeted on Gen Z and Gen Alpha, seen as new segments that can be moulded to break the link with the DPP. Although the DPP is projected to win in a close election, Beijing still has the upper hand in using this victory as a pretext to increase aggression and portray the DPP as the cause of increasing tensions.

A KMT victory does not necessarily mean direct peace is on the horizon, as other measures, especially direct approaches with the KMT regime, might be sought to bypass the will of the Taiwanese people in deciding their future. Beijing’s limited diversity and efficacy of its strategic options on Taiwan means it is still trapped in the limited diversity and efficacy of its options.

Trump’s peace-based approach has led to stable global relations in his four years, highlighting the importance of maintaining long-term sovereignty and independence, rather than compromising or presenting compromises. The Taiwanese people depend on the leaders’ will to give them the right to choose the future of Taiwan, and democracy, decency in policy approach, and freedom are on the line in this election.

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