With Lai Ching-te, the Taiwanese have elected another DPP president, to the ire of Beijing. For the EU, the election outcome offers a chance to forge closer relations with Taipei, says Helena Legarda.
It fell to Taiwan to open what is a historic year for elections worldwide, with over half of the world’s population going to the polls this year. Taiwanese voters did so on January 13 to elect their new president and legislature. They gave the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a historic third term in office by electing Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) as their next president. With just over 40 percent of the vote, Lai defeated the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Hou Yu-ih (with 33.5 percent) and the Taiwan People’s Party’s (TPP) Ko Wen-je (with 26.5 percent).
Lai and the DPP, however, did not receive a sweeping mandate. Lai’s margin of victory was smaller than in previous elections. The DPP has lost 2.5 million votes since 2020, when now outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen secured over 57 percent of the vote. And the party has also lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament), which it had held since 2016. Instead, voters delivered a split legislature, with the KMT as the biggest party with 52 seats, against the DPP’s 51 and the TPP’s eight.
Taiwan chooses continuity
Lai’s victory is likely to lead to substantial continuity in Taiwan’s foreign policy. Despite some comments in the past signaling support for Taiwan’s independence, Lai has changed his tone over the last few years. Throughout the campaign, he pledged to follow Tsai Ing-wen’s approach to relations with the United States and China. And this is precisely what voters have given him a mandate to do.
Today, the Taiwanese public overwhelmingly favors maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. According to a June 2023 survey, 87.9 percent of the population want to preserve the status quo, although with varying views of what this should lead to further down the line. As a result, Lai is extremely unlikely to fundamentally shift Taiwan’s current approach to cross-Strait relations or to foreign policy more broadly. Instead, he is expected to double down on outreach to like-minded allies and partners, continue to modernize Taiwan’s military, speed up economic diversification strategies, and continue to emphasize Taiwan’s sovereignty in its dealings with Beijing.
The makeup of Taiwan’s legislature, however, could create some obstacles to Lai’s agenda. While Taiwan’s presidential system gives the president authority over many big picture decisions, including on foreign policy, Lai will face difficulties on getting certain budget and procurement initiatives—especially on defense issues—through the Legislative Yuan. With the TPP as the new kingmaker, the DPP will have to find a way to work with Ko Wen-je’s new party. It is unclear, however, whether the TPP will be open to this or if it will choose to align more closely with the KMT. The TPP and the KMT did try after all to form a joint ticket to run in the elections together, even if their efforts failed in the end. The first sign of where the TPP will land will come during the first session of the legislature, when legislators will have to elect a new speaker.
These results show that despite China’s attempts at framing this election as a choice between war (if the DPP won) and peace (if the KMT won), a solid plurality of Taiwanese voters have rejected Beijing’s threats. This election, however, was not fought solely on the basis of each party’s approach to cross-Strait relations. Domestic concerns around Taiwan’s high-priced real estate market, energy policy, and LGBTQI+ rights also played a key role in shaping voting decisions. In what was widely seen as a referendum on eight years of DPP rule, voters seem to have issued a warning to the party to focus more on internal issues.
Beijing’s pressure campaign
Official Chinese sources attacked Lai Ching-te and the DPP throughout their campaign for their “separatism,” with state media calling Lai provocative and aggressive and labeling his ticket with former Taiwanese representative to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, “the most dangerous combination.” A DPP victory was the worst-case scenario for Beijing, as it was hoping for a return to positive engagement under the KMT in order to make progress toward “peaceful reunification.”
Beijing’s initial response to the election results was relatively muted. Short statements by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized the People’s Republic’s position that this is China’s internal affair and that the results of the elections will not change its overall approach and strategy. In an attempt to delegitimize the incoming Lai government, they also pushed the claim that the DPP does not represent the majority of the Taiwanese population.
But we should expect more from Beijing to up the pressure on Taipei. Military exercises near Taiwan are possible and even likely, and gray-zone activities and coercive trade measures (such as the suspension of further parts of their bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement) will also feature in Beijing’s reaction. China’s objective will be to demonstrate its displeasure with the results, reemphasize red lines, and to try to pressure Lai into adopting a more moderate tone and policy that is more in line with the Chinese leadership’s own preferences.
Beijing’s first (diplomatic) show of force came just two days after the elections, on January 15, when Nauru, a small island nation north of Australia, announced that it was switching recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. This was a decision that was certainly finalized well before Taiwan went to the polls, but the announcement was timed for maximum effect in case of a DPP win. This leaves Taiwan with only 12 formal diplomatic allies, and in more need than ever of close relations with like-minded partners like the United States or Europe.
Tensions in the Strait are therefore likely to increase as Beijing tries to intimidate the new administration. But is important to note that war in the Taiwan Strait remains highly unlikely. With Beijing dealing with a sluggish economy and waiting to see the results of the November US presidential elections, China is much more likely to stick to current levels of pressure in order to prevent any potential escalation.
An opportunity for Europe
Europe has traditionally not been a top priority for Taiwan’s foreign policy, but there are some signs that this might change under the new Lai administration. During the campaign, Lai expressed some interest in deepening ties with Europe, emphasizing the common values both sides share, and calling for more exchanges on both trade as well as peace and security. And as Beijing continues to increase pressure on Taiwan, pushing Taipei to accelerate its economic diversification strategy and its efforts to deepen ties with like-minded partners around the world, new opportunities will emerge for Europe to engage with Taiwan, protect its own interests and security, and help preserve the status quo.
This will require effort from both sides, however. On the one hand, Lai and the DPP will have to follow through on their calls for more cooperation with Europe. This should involve a clearer EU strategy, and in the economic space, greater willingness to pragmatically focus on sectoral cooperation agreements and on addressing trade barriers on both sides—both issues that have been obstacles in the past.
Meanwhile, Europe will have to accelerate its learning curve when it comes to understanding how deeply its interests are linked to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and how to navigate the gray zones of its One China policy and the growing uncertainties in the region. In order to contribute toward the preservation of the status quo more effectively and thus protect its own interests and security, the EU should deepen its ties with Taiwan.
This includes being ready to speak up against Chinese pressure and intimidation in order to contribute toward deterrence efforts. The EU should invest in increasing its public and institutional knowledge of cross-Strait relations, domestic dynamics in Taiwan, and the impact that a crisis in the Strait would have on Europe’s own interests. And it should also improve its own resilience toward a potential future crisis in the region, and step up its coordination with partners on Taiwan-related issues.
As Lai Ching-te will only take office in May, Europe now has a perfect opportunity to spend the next few months working on its approach and building relations with the incoming administration. The EU would be well served to use this opportunity before it enters into its own election period ahead of the June European Parliament elections, and before the November 2024 elections in the US suck all the air out of the (geopolitical) room.
This article was first published by Internationale Politik Quarterly on January 16, 2024.