Political Realities of Taiwan


Photo source: East Asia Forum

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Given that the CIA believes Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to take over Taiwan by 2027, the invasion threat won’t be a distant abstraction after the Taiwan 2024 elections. The two major parties in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT) — differ most starkly on relations with Beijing. Since the island’s first presidential election in 1996, the DPP has emphasised Taiwan’s separate national identity from China, while the KMT has sought greater accommodation with the giant across the strait.

The foreign policy community in Washington clearly tilts toward the DPP. The pro-American party has held the presidency for the past eight years as both the Trump and Biden administrations have forged closer ties with Taipei. The DPP emphasises democracy and freedom in a way that resonates in the United States.

So while a DPP victory would be hailed as an ideological rebuke of Beijing, political pundits wonder whether a KMT loss result and DPP’s win this time around wouldn’t be a strategic abatement for Washington. With wars in Europe and the Middle East, US power is stretched dangerously. KMT victory could have resulted in a temporary reduction in cross-strait tensions that have given Washington a window to put the US military deterrent on a firmer footing.

Zoom out from the current election: Maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty is one of the few fixed priorities in the United States’ peculiar foreign policy. Letting the strategic island fall to Beijing would devastate Washington’s alliance structure and military position in Asia. The Defense Department says China is the United States’ most formidable rival, and Taiwan, just 100 miles from China’s coast with a population of about 24 million, is the US ally China most consistently threatens.

The United States hasn’t kept up with the challenge. Adm. John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, said in 2022 that China is conducting ‘the largest military buildup in history since World War II.’ Australian and British officials agree. Meantime, the Pentagon budget is roughly flat as a share of US gross domestic product and far below Cold War levels. The military-industrial base is under pressure from supplying Ukraine in its war with Russia even as the Biden administration tries to supply Israel’s war with Hamas and deter a war with Iran.

The shortage of missiles is especially dire, as the Wall Street Journal reports, noting a simulation that found ‘America would run out of all-important long-range anti-ship missiles within the first week’ of a war over Taiwan. The United States has allowed its ability to ensure Taiwan’s political independence which it has guaranteed, more or less, since Japan lost control of the island in 1945, to fall into doubt.

China, or at least China’s ruling Communist Party, will never concede Taiwan’s sovereignty. The best path to preventing a war of ‘unification’ is probably to postpone it, ideally indefinitely, through fictions such as the ‘one China’ policy, in which the United States hedges about Taiwan’s official status while maintaining its de facto independence. The KMT, mugged by Xi’s 2020 crackdown in Hong Kong, has been forced to take the China threat more seriously and would be in no political position to give away the store to China even if it wanted to. But they are not in power.

A third consecutive DPP term, on the other hand, will empower hawks in Beijing to argue that Taiwanese nationalists are so firmly in control that any resolution other than one involving the use of force is unrealistic. And they could make that argument at a time when US deterrent power is more decayed than it has been in decades. The DPP, despite some worthy reforms, has failed to fundamentally alter the island’s severe defense deficiencies in its eight years in power. As Michael J Lostumbo observes: ‘much of Taiwan’s defense budget is locked into capabilities that are neither survivable nor potent.’ Taipei is relying on the US Air Force and Navy to ride to the rescue.

Even after the election, avoiding Taiwan’s absorption by China will remain a top US foreign policy priority. After DPP’s win, the long-term trend of convergence between Washington and Taipei will continue. That convergence can help ward off a Chinese attack if the threat is still remote and if Taiwan and the United States diligently build up their defenses in the coming years.

Following Taiwan’s general elections in January 2024, South Asian countries released a range of statements supporting China’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and on upholding ‘One China’ principle. The outpour of support showcases Beijing’s use of economic and political influence in the region to control the discourse over Taiwan.

With the Indian Ocean becoming a centre of geopolitical competition, Beijing’s influence and presence will only increase. Statements of support are part of China’s toolkit for cementing its claims over Taiwan. The supportive messages from South Asia are an indicator of Beijing’s success in controlling the narrative about Taiwan and underscores how economic power can be used for political and diplomatic ends.


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