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Taiwan’s future is more uncertain than ever

The fall in support for Taiwan's anti-Beijing government will embolden Xi Jinping.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics World

Taiwan’s anti-Beijing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), now led by Lai Ching-te, has won an unprecedented third presidential term in last weekend’s elections. The DPP’s victory over the Kuomintang (KMT), which adopts a more conciliatory position towards China, shows that, on balance, the Taiwanese still want freedom from Beijing. But beyond that, Taiwan’s future is arguably more uncertain than ever.

The DPP’s vote has fallen significantly since the last presidential election in January 2020, from nearly 60 per cent to just over 40 per cent today. KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih was not far behind Lai on 34 per cent this time around. Furthermore, the DPP lost its parliamentary majority, securing just 51 seats in Taiwan’s 113-seat parliament. The KMT won 52, and the recently formed Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), favoured by many Taiwanese youth, took eight. This was the DPP’s first loss of a parliamentary majority since 2016.

The DPP is the most forthright of all three parties in rejecting Beijing’s bellicose advances. Indeed, Beijing has refused to talk to the DPP in the past, because the DPP does not abide by the ‘1992 consensus’. This was a framework for cooperation between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), by which both Taiwan and Beijing recognised that they were part of one country, ‘One China’, but diplomatically disagreed on which ‘China’ was being referred to – the Republic of China (ROC), founded in 1912 by the KMT, or the People’s Republic of China, founded when the CCP overthrew the ROC in 1949. (The Republic of China remains Taiwan’s official name.)

After these election results, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping will sense the weakness of the DPP. It’s likely that between now and 20 May, when Lai is formally inaugurated as president, Xi will step up Beijing’s provocations in the air and in the Taiwan Strait, the sea that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. CCP meddling in Taiwanese media and politics will also increase.

After Ukraine and Gaza, it looks very much as if the world has just drawn a little closer to opening another theatre of war, this one centered on Taiwan.

US president Joe Biden has already weighed in on the election results with a diplomatic fudge. In a restatement of America’s longstanding ‘One China’ policy – that there is one China and that Taiwan is a part of it – Biden said that the US does not support Taiwanese independence. This, however, is somewhat at odds with Biden’s previous comments in 2022, when he suggested that the US would defend Taiwan if it was attacked, a statement that upset the CCP at the time.

At China’s powerful State Council, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office was dismissive of the election results, saying that they showed that the DPP ‘cannot represent the mainstream public opinion on the island’.

Beijing’s growing belligerence towards Taiwan is partly fuelled by America’s weakness. From its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan to its faltering support for Ukraine and Israel, the US under Biden doesn’t look like a power ready to rush to Taiwan’s side – especially in an election year. President Xi is in a stronger position than ever to put pressure on Taiwan without getting much pushback from the West.

What will also have stiffened Xi’s sinews is the poor performance of the DPP. It seems that after eight years in power, the DPP has lost a lot of support, particularly among the young. One Japanese expert on Taiwan notes a shift in voting habits, especially among younger people. Many who would have voted for the DPP in the past now see it as becoming more conservative, more like the KMT – hence the rise in support for the new Taiwan People’s Party.

Of course, if the DPP is struggling for domestic legitimacy, then so is President Xi. The CCP’s traditional sources of legitimacy, based on economic performance and institutional reform, can no longer be relied on. Faced with US sanctions and other impediments to growth, Xi has recently taken steps towards diplomatic rapprochement with Washington.

So, as it stands, Xi will probably move against Taiwan at some point. But he will want to bide his time, which at the moment he can do. China is currently in pole position, not Taiwan. During a period of weakness from Western powers, we must hope that the Taiwanese people continue to show fortitude.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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