US Lawmakers and Policy Analysts Watch Taiwan’s Elections With an Eye on China


People walk past an image of a Taiwanese flag during a campaign rally of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party ahead of the presidential election in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on Jan. 12, 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP via Getty Images)

With Taiwan heading into the final hours of its presidential election cycle, lawmakers and foreign policy analysts in the United States are preparing for how the election outcome will impact international relations with China.

While Taiwan governs itself like an independent nation, the People’s Republic of China considers the island a part of its territory. Officials within the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have repeatedly alluded to asserting political control over Taiwan through a strategy of so-called “reunification” between the island and the Chinese mainland, and have not ruled out military actions as a means of achieving this goal. It is in this context that foreign policy analysts like John Dotson, deputy director for the Global Taiwan Institute, are keeping an eye on Taiwan’s next moves and China’s reactions.

“The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is certainly undertaking a very broad effort to try to influence the elections in Taiwan,” Mr. Dotson told NTD News.

Mr. Dotson, who is a former U.S. Navy officer, said Chinese efforts to influence the election’s outcome have included overt acts of military intimidation, such as operating military aircraft and surveillance balloons near the island. However, he said the Chinese side has also pursued a less overt approach, with propaganda and disinformation, as well as efforts to gain favor with political figures and other local officials within Taiwan.

“Something else we’ve seen over the last month or two, was a program funded by the Chinese government to invite lower-level local officials from Taiwan on trips into the PRC, where they will be … wined and dined and cultivated and so forth,” he said. “So that there’s a very broad-based effort to try to influence the elections in Taiwan, that’s taken multiple forms.”

The CCP’s Preferred Outcome

The Taiwanese presidential election pits Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate—and current Taiwanese Vice President—Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, against Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih, who is currently mayor of New Taipei. Voters are set to go to the polls and decide the outcome on Saturday.

As Mr. Dotson described it, there is a popular perception that the KMT is more agreeable to China, while the DPP is viewed as favoring greater independence and separation from China and the CCP.

The KMT’s policy platform states that the party aims to improve cross-strait relations but will work to deter military aggression from China.

Outgoing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, who is a DPP member, has pursued defense spending increases throughout her time in office since 2016.

“There are elements in the past of the DPP, where it … has been sometimes regarded as though [it was] the more pro-independence party or the more … native Taiwan identity party,” Mr. Dotson said. “And it’s on that grounds that the PRC has been extremely hostile to the DPP, under the current DPP administration.”

Mr. Dotson said Ms. Tsai has actually been more moderate than other elements within the DPP, and has not made any efforts to assert de jure independence from China. Mr. Dotson said Mr. Lai has similarly vowed not to assert de jure Taiwanese independence, “but the government of China, of Beijing, is still very hostile to the DPP.”

In a Thursday press statement, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that if Mr. Lai is elected, he and the DPP would “continue to follow the evil path of provocation for ‘independence’ and the old path of confrontation and confrontation, taking Taiwan farther and farther away from peace and prosperity, and closer and closer to war and recession.”

Mr. Dotson stopped short of saying the KMT would necessarily act out of a sense of indebtedness or allegiance to China if Mr. Hou wins.

“If the KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih were to win the presidency, there probably would be, at least for a limited period of time, a bit of a thawing in the relations there. I don’t know that it would actually last, because I think even though the PRC has made very clear its preferences for a KMT victory in these elections, I think they would probably find themselves disappointed under a KMT administration,” Mr. Dotson said.

Taiwanese People Likely to Reject CCP Influence, Analysts Say

Mr. Dotston said he believes Taiwan “has made a very impressive response” to a concerted campaign of outside influence and interference, pushing back on the influence efforts through various civil society organizations and grassroots efforts.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he doubts Taiwan’s voters will be swayed by outside influences.

“It is a vibrant democracy with free press, aggressive elections, as it should be,” Mr. Díaz-Balart told NTD News. “So I don’t think that the Taiwanese are going to be intimidated. I think they’re going to hopefully turn out, as I think they will, and elect a new president. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s an exciting thing. And it’s important that Communist China know that they will, they are not going to influence nor will they intimidate the Taiwanese people to make the choice that they want to make.”

No matter what choice Taiwan’s voters make, Mr. Díaz-Balart said Taiwan “will have the strong support of the United States Congress.”

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, still urged vigilance.

“I think we better worry about China with their technological advancements stealing that election, and corrupting that system, further dislodging the good people of Taiwan from the truth,” Mr. Burchett told NTD News.

Impact on US-China Relations

Mr. Dotson insisted the outcome of Taiwan’s elections should be up to the voters, and it’s not up to either the regime in Beijing or the government in Washington D.C. to dictate that outcome.

“Whichever candidate wins the presidency, and whichever party commands a majority in the legislature, I would expect the U.S. government to want to work productively with either of them,” he said.

If Mr. Lai and the DPP win, Mr. Dotson predicted the Taiwanese vice president will provide a great deal of continuity with his predecessor, Ms. Tsai.

“Even if there were to be a change of government, if there were to be a slight surprise, and if Hou Yu-ih were to win, and a KMT administration would come into office, you know, I think there would, of course be some recalibration in the relationship, but I think those cultural relations would continue,” Mr. Dotson continued.

Despite political divisions within the United States, Mr. Díaz-Balart said he believes there’s a strong consensus of support for Taiwan within the United States.

The U.S. government has long maintained a position of “strategic ambiguity” with regards to the sovereignty dispute across the Taiwan Strait, simultaneously avoiding a clear recognition of Taiwanese independence but continuing to carry on informal relations with Taiwan. Under this ambiguous strategy, the United States also supplies weapons to Taiwan, but does not definitively commit to intervening on Taiwan’s behalf if it is invaded by China.

Under President Joe Biden’s administration, the United States has continued to provide arms transfers to Taiwan.

In some instances, President Biden has said the United States is committed to defending Taiwan, only for the White House to issue follow-up statements indicating that the president was not communicating any change in official U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

“I think President Biden has shown great weakness in uncertainty, confusion, at best. That’s not helpful. That makes the entire world, frankly, less safe. Having said that, Congress has been very clear about supporting Taiwan, its sovereignty, its ability to decide their own leadership. And it’s important that Communist China understands that the United States is strong,” the Florida Republican said.

Aside from arming and preparing to potentially defend Taiwan militarily, Mr. Burchett argued that the United States needs to be prepared to “economically defend Taiwan.” He said the U.S. side should also decrease its reliance on Chinese supply chains and instead expand domestic efforts to acquire key resources such as rare earth minerals.

Las Vegas News Magazine

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