The Taiwanese Wild Card

On January 13, 2024, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Taiwan held an election for Taiwan’s chief executive. Three candidates ran in the election: Lai Qingde (Democratic Progressive Party), Hou Yui (Kuomintang), and Ke Wen-je (Taiwan People’s Party). Lai Qingde, whose party favors Taiwanese independence, won.

Some experts argue that as a result, Taiwan will begin to distance itself from China and Russia and move closer to the United States and its allies, which will complicate the international situation.

However, the Democratic Progressive Party has won elections many times before, and is currently the ruling party on the island, having won the previous election in 2020, which did not result in serious consequences after all. Lai himself has said in the run-up to the election that he intends to pursue Taiwanese independence; he is more radical than current leader Tsai Ing-wen.

Regarding the losing candidates, the following can be said.

The candidate of the Kuomintang party, Hou Yui, is against the independence of the island and for the normalization of relations with Beijing, but on Kuomintang’s terms. In reality, it turns out that he is supposedly against the independence of Taiwan, but in reality he cannot go for unification because he opposes the Communist Party of China. This is the traditional position of this party, which considers itself the national party of China with patriotic origins. Hou Yui has always emphasized the importance of supporting peace and stability on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and has advocated promoting dialogue and cooperation with China, believing that this is necessary for Taiwan’s prosperity and development.

Taiwan People’s Party candidate Ke Wen-je supports maintaining the current relationship with China for the sake of preserving peace; i.e.; he is essentially for a continuation of the current course of the Taiwanese authorities—not to get closer to China, but also not to make it so that China is forced to use force.

Chinese experts consider the first two politicians pro-American, and Ke Wen-je pro-Japanese, believing that in fact, whichever of them is elected, there will be no significant improvement in the situation in the island’s relations with China.

The election is attracting global attention because it is not only a struggle between Taiwan’s domestic political forces, but also a reflection of tensions between China and the United States.

The Taiwanese themselves are divided into several camps, some believe that Taiwan should avoid radical actions for the sake of peace, others are in favor of independence, counting on protection and support from Western countries, and others are inclined, if not to unification with China, then to integration with it.

The Chinese authorities intend to seek reunification by implementing the “one country, two systems” model tested when Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and Macau in 1999. Taiwan is expected to be within China but enjoy a large degree of autonomy. The accession of Taiwan by force would be disadvantageous to China, as the two sides would suffer serious economic damage.

Taiwan is a leader in the global semiconductor manufacturing market. As Bloomberg notes, if war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, it could result in economic losses of $10 trillion for the entire world, equivalent to 10% of the current global GDP.

China is very much integrated into the world economy, so it would suffer tremendous damage. Therefore, the Chinese leadership is trying to achieve unification through peaceful methods.

The emphasis here is on the use of soft power and traditional Chinese pragmatism. This is expressed in the fact that Taiwanese can visit China, work there and do business, use the national social policy (which cannot be used by foreigners who do not have citizenship of the People’s Republic of China); enterprises with Taiwanese capital operating on the mainland can receive tax breaks and other benefits.

According to the 13th Five-Year Plan, a high-speed railroad from Beijing to Taipei is included in the national high-speed railroad network construction program. It is expected to be put into operation in 2035.

On Jan. 8, China’s Ministry of Commerce, Taiwan Affairs Office, Reform and Development Committee and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology approved a set of measures to further strengthen trade and economic cooperation between Fujian Province and Taiwan to deepen economic integration in the Taiwan Strait. Obviously, this is to demonstrate to Taiwanese voters the benefits of establishing relations with the “big motherland.”

In March 2005, China passed the Anti-Separatism Law, which determined that declaring Taiwanese independence was a pretext for war. Therefore, decisive actions by the new Taiwanese leadership could provoke a military conflict—if Lai declared that Taiwan was now an independent state, he would leave Xi Jinping no choice but to use force.

Therefore, the Chinese authorities have been making preparations not only among the Taiwanese, but also on the international stage.

On January 8th and 9th, the 17th working meeting between the U.S. and Chinese Defense Departments was held, at which the Chinese side stressed that “there will never be the slightest compromise or concession on the Taiwan issue. The United States must abide by the ‘one China’ principle, effectively fulfill relevant obligations, stop arming Taiwan and oppose Taiwan’s ‘independence’.”

Prior to this, on January 7th, China’s Foreign Ministry announced sanctions against five U.S. military-industrial complex companies that supplied arms to Taiwan. A U.S. spokesman said on January 9 that the U.S. side “urges Beijing to stop exerting military, diplomatic, and economic pressure on Taiwan.”

The U.S. strategy is to maintain the status quo of the Taiwan issue and gradually arm Taiwan in order to periodically escalate the situation in the Taiwan Strait, causing trouble for China by “containing” it and intimidating its neighbors in the region. To this end, the U.S. recently provided $500 million in military assistance to Taiwan.

But, on the other hand, in the current international situation, when their considerable forces are drawn to Israel and Ukraine, the Americans will not benefit from a military conflict between China and Taiwan, as it will require their direct intervention, huge financial expenditures, and it is not certain that the U.S. will come out of this conflict victorious. On the contrary, it could lead to the Taiwan issue being resolved once and for all in favor of China.

Some Taiwanese political analysts draw associations between Lai Qingde, Zelensky and Netanyahu, calling them “dangerous friends of the US,” implying that their behavior could create problems for Americans, putting the US in a difficult position.

Therefore, senior White House officials periodically emphasize that the United States opposes “Taiwan independence” and supports the “one China” principle, thus preventing the Taiwanese leadership from gaining confidence in unconditional U.S. support.

At the same time, a peaceful unification of Taiwan and China would also be disadvantageous for the United States, as it would strengthen China’s geopolitical position, provide it with technological advantages, and reduce the ability of the Americans to influence the Chinese leadership.

In this regard, the United States is taking steps to “warm up” Taiwan. Thus, recently 73 senators and representatives of the U.S. Congress passed a “pro-Taiwan resolution,” promising to use all effective methods to support the “freedom” of the Taiwanese people. And on the eve of the Taiwanese elections, the U.S. sent 148 million liters of diesel fuel to military bases in the Philippines in order to use the Philippines as a springboard for armed intervention in the Taiwan Strait at any time.

Based on the above, we can conclude that the U.S. and China face complex geopolitical tasks: they need to avoid military conflict to achieve their goals, which not only do not coincide, but are opposite.

The situation is aggravated by some unpredictability of Lai Qingde. Obviously, the Americans will have to restrain him periodically to prevent him from making too serious provocations toward China.

On May 20, Lai Qingde will be inaugurated, after which we can expect some concrete actions from him that will determine the further development of the situation. If Lai does not provide an occasion to launch military action, we can expect that the Chinese leadership will continue to work to win the trust of the Taiwanese people and change their political preferences. If Lai Qingde does something rash, there will be a real danger of a military conflict that will affect not only Southeast Asia, but also the world as a whole—the world economy will face a number of fundamental changes that will affect almost all business spheres.

Konstantin Batanov holds a PhD in Economic Sciences and is Associate Professor at the Department of Theory and Methodology of Translation, Higher School of Translation and Interpretation, Moscow State University. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Geopolitika.