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Countries Assess Implications of Taiwan Election As Campaigns Enter Final Weeks

Supporters hoist a giant Taiwan national flag during a campaign rally of Kuomintang (KMT) ahead of Taiwan's presidential election, in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 23, 2023.
Supporters hoist a giant Taiwan national flag during a campaign rally of Kuomintang (KMT) ahead of Taiwan's presidential election, in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 23, 2023.

With less than three weeks until Taiwan’s presidential election on Jan. 13, the presidential frontrunner’s lead over his main opponent has narrowed in the polls, setting the stage for a hotly contested race.

The election not only dominates domestic headlines but also pushes regional countries, such as China, the U.S., and Japan, to closely monitor the outcome and its potential implications for regional order.

While the election results may not fundamentally alter dynamics across the Taiwan Strait, some analysts say the Chinese government may adjust the pressure that it imposes on Taiwan, depending on who wins the election.

“Fundamentally, I think China’s pressure on Taiwan is not going to abate regardless of who wins because Beijing’s ultimate goal is to exert control over Taiwan,” Ian Chong, a political scientist at National Singapore University, told VOA by phone.

“If it were a DPP victory, Beijing might take actions that may seem a bit more provocative, and if it were a KMT victory, China may try to strike some sort of arrangement with the KMT that will make Taiwan more reliant on China,” he added.

As Taiwan remains the most sensitive issue between the U.S. and China, some experts say communications will be important in preventing tensions between Washington and Beijing from ratcheting up again.

“Both Washington and Beijing are sensitive to how Taiwan’s elections can kick tensions back up again, [and] that’s one reason why leaders from the two countries used their meeting in San Francisco to try to lower the temperature,” Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VOA in a written response.

China hopes to prevent another DPP administration

Since the Democratic Progressive Party came to power in Taiwan in 2016, cross-strait exchanges have been largely stalled and Beijing has cut off official communication with Taipei. Chong in Singapore said the most concerning scenario for Beijing in the Taiwan election is the DPP winning the presidential race and maintaining a majority in the Legislative Yuan.

“I think that’s going to be the most frustrating scenario for Beijing because they will find that they aren’t in a position to push Taiwan around as much,” he told VOA, adding that the Chinese government is trying to consolidate votes behind a stronger anti-DPP candidate in the election.

Over the last few weeks, China has unleashed a series of coercive measures to try to interfere in Taiwan’s upcoming election, deploying military aircraft and balloons to areas near Taiwan and suspending tariff relief on imports of 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products.

Chong said if Lai wins the presidency but the DPP fails to secure a majority in the legislature, Beijing may try to double down on the efforts of getting Lai to “slip up” and potentially “lash out.”

“Beijing might test to see where the red lines might be and where he might slip up,” he said.

Washington looks for predictability

While Beijing tries to prevent the DPP from securing an unprecedented third term in government, some experts say the U.S. will pay close attention to the presidential candidates’ stance on U.S.-Taiwan relations and cross-strait relations.

“All three presidential candidates have essentially signed onto the platform of ‘we will be Tsai Ing-wen 2.0’ when it comes to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and that puts the U.S. at ease to some degree,” Lev Nachman, an expert on Taiwan politics at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told VOA by phone.

But with the Kuomintang’s vice presidential candidate Jaw Shao-Kang repeatedly stirring up “America skepticism” during campaigns, some analysts say Washington might be carefully strategizing an approach to work with a potential Taiwanese administration that is less committed to sustaining U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The message of “America skepticism” is that Taiwan should exercise caution when engaging with the U.S. because of perceived U.S. weakness or selfishness. Research found that a large portion of these narratives originate in Taiwan, but some start spreading from China and Russia.

“If Jaw as VP led the KMT to lean into the idea of ‘American skepticism,’ the U.S. would face a negotiating partner in Taiwan that is significantly more anti-American than the administrations under former president Ma Ying-jeou and current president Tsai Ing-wen,” Sara Newland, a political scientist at Smith College, told VOA in a written response.

Nachman said Washington will be concerned if the next Taiwanese president is less predictable or “doesn’t contribute” to a productive U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Japan favors maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait

Apart from the U.S. and China, Japan is also closely following developments in the Taiwan election. Since 2022, Japan has dramatically changed its defense and security policies due to rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait as well as in its surrounding region.

Despite Tokyo’s efforts to beef up its defense capabilities, some experts say the Japanese government hopes whoever comes into power in Taipei will be committed to maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

“I think Tokyo is going to be looking at the candidates’ positions on engagement with China,” Stephen Nagy, a regional security expert at the International Christian University in Japan, told VOA by phone.

In his view, while Tokyo hopes to keep deepening bilateral relations with Taipei, they will use a cautious approach to handle the delicate issue. “Japan doesn’t want to move away from the one-China context and they understand the red lines from the Chinese perspective,” Nagy added.

Nachman in Taiwan thinks while a victory by Kuomintang may decrease tension across the Taiwan Strait, it doesn’t mean Beijing would stop its aggressive military activities in other parts of Asia.

“[The impact of the Taiwan election result on the region] is going to be limited to what Beijing does in the Taiwan Strait,” he told VOA. “It’s a form of decreasing tensions in the region but it doesn’t eliminate all regional tensions.”