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Cross-Strait relations loom large in Taiwan’s presidential election

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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen waves to visitors in Taichung, Taiwan, 14 July 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang).

In Brief

The Taiwanese people will soon vote for their president, vice president and legislators in January 2024. Past elections have always been dominated by the two major political camps — the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT).


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But recent elections have shown increasing voter dissatisfaction with polarisation. In 2014, independent candidate Ko Wen-je became the mayor of Taipei and was re-elected in 2018. In 2019, Ko founded the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which emphasises technocracy and transparency. In the 2020 legislative election, the TPP became Taiwan’s third largest party. The rise of a new political force has significantly altered Taiwan’s political landscape and has the potential to shape future election outcomes, with Ko having a legitimate shot at the presidency.

The TPP can be seen as a ‘third way’ in Taiwan, a political philosophy emerging in the late 1990s and described by British sociologist Anthony Giddens as ‘the renewal of social democracy in a world where the views of the old left have become obsolete, while those of the new right are inadequate and contradictory’. In Taiwan and elsewhere, the third way calls for a new approach to politics that transcends traditional left–right distinctions and seeks to find a middle ground while emphasising pragmatic governance and welfare reform.

But Ko and the TPP face formidable challengers at the ballot box from the ruling DPP’s Lai Ching-te and the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih. Each candidate promises a different approach to cross-Strait relations.

The DPP’s Lai has described himself as a ‘pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence’ and his party has a long history of advocating for Taiwanese nationhood. Although he recently tried to clarify that there is no need to formally declare independence, his public statements and activities on the matter have not alleviated concerns from the United States and China.

The KMT’s presidential candidate is vague on the China question. The KMT engages Beijing through the so-called 1992 Consensus, which is understood as ‘one China with respective interpretations’ by both China and Taiwan. The last KMT president Ma Ying-jeou held a historic meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping under this framework in 2015. But Hou has consistently avoided taking a definitive stance on cross-Strait relations, with his ambiguity generating fissures within the KMT.

The TPP’s cross-strait policy takes a ‘middle path’, upholding a pragmatic attitude of ‘promoting exchanges and increasing goodwill’ to advance cross-Strait interactions. Ko Wen-je has used the phrase ‘one family across the Strait’ on several occasions, including at the Taipei–Shanghai twin city forum held during his tenure as Taipei mayor. Ko has also endorsed four reciprocal actions to undergird the relationship — to know, understand, respect and work with each other.

All three candidates have adopted ambiguous positions on China policy, preferring to observe public sentiment before formulating their views to secure the most votes. But history suggests that either a DPP or KMT victory would likely see a continuation of each party’s existing policies.

Neither outcome is without risk. The DPP’s approach of strengthening Taiwan’s democracy, ties with the United States and self-defence capabilities may increase the likelihood of conflict, while the KMT’s pro-China stance does little to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty. Although most polls show Lai ahead, followed by Ko and Hou, Lai’s assertive pro-independence stance risks backlash from Beijing as well.

Based on three important indicators — the probability of war, economic outlooks and the possibility of improving cross-Strait relations, Ko appears to be the most pragmatic choice for Taiwan’s next president. He may also be the easiest for China to swallow. The major question now is whether the non-progressive camp can consolidate.

Tech billionaire Terry Gou announced his intention to run as an independent candidate on 28 August, though Gou still needs to gather about 300,000 voter signatures by 2 November to assure his candidacy. Despite Gou’s claim that his intention is to facilitate party alternation, both domestic and international media analyses unanimously suggest that Gou’s candidacy will ensure Lai’s victory in the election.

The upcoming election is not only an important opportunity for the Taiwanese people to determine their destiny, but its outcomes will also shape the global situation for the next four to eight years. Geopolitical competition has intensified, along with concern over how tensions in the Taiwan Strait might affect peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. With the world’s largest chip supplier located in Taiwan, a potential war would disrupt the chip supply and affect the global economy.

So far, neither Ko, Lai or Hou have explained how they might mitigate potential conflict with China. But all three candidates assert their ability to maintain peace — what they perceive as a primary concern among Taiwanese voters. While the candidates would undoubtedly approach interactions with China differently, all three will work towards the optimal scenario of Taiwan upholding its existing democratic system, while averting conflict. Achieving this ideal path may necessitate the re-initiation of dialogue with China.

Wen-Chi Yang is Director of the Center for Australian Studies, College of International Affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. She is currently Visiting Fellow at the Australian Studies Institute, the Australian National University.

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