The fate of the island and Beijing’s reaction are a crucial point in China-US relations
Before the American presidential elections in November there is another vote that can change the world. It’s the elections tomorrow, Saturday 13 January, in Taiwan, where a small democracy votes in the shadow of the threat from China, a large authoritarian neighbor that places reunification among its declared objectives. “How China responds to the choices made by Taiwan’s voters will be a test of whether it can manage tensions between Washington and Beijing or proceed towards further confrontation, or even conflict,” CNN notes.
I am 19.3 million voters called to vote for the election of the new president and the renewal of the single-chamber parliament, the Legislative Yuan. Beijing intervened heavily, with threats, military exercises, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion, to direct the vote towards Hou Yu-Ih, candidate of the opposition nationalist Kuomitang (KMT) party. The objective is to prevent the victory of William Lai, candidate of outgoing President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The third is Ko Wen-je, charismatic former mayor of Taipei, who in 2019 founded the Taiwan People’s Party, focusing above all on the issues of high prices and proposing a third way in relations with Beijing, which in his opinion is neither too hostile nor too deferential.
China “intensifies the military threat” and “attempts to convey the idea that these elections are a choice between war and slowing growth”, in the event of William Lai’s triumph, “or peace and prosperity”, in the event of William Lai’s victory Hou Yu-Ih, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in a recent interview with Le Monde, denouncing “increasingly sophisticated Chinese interference”.
Beijing considers Taiwan, a de facto independent island with 23 million inhabitants and a handful of allies in the world, a “rebel province” to be “reunified”. “Reunification” is “inevitable”remarked in his last public speech the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party since 2012, a party-state with more than 98 million members, at the top of the Central Military Commission and president of China since 2013, which focuses on his person had as many powers as any leader before him had ever had in the People’s Republic.
In 1992, Taipei and Beijing agreed on the existence of one China. But more than 30 years later, the status quo of the so-called 1992 Consensus is increasingly fragile. Beijing accuses the DPP of pushing for independence. Since Tsai’s victory eight years ago, Xi has cut most ties with Taiwan, increased military pressure and reacted harshly to every Western visit to the island.
However, the hard line chosen by Xi has had the effect of increasing distances. While the fate of Hong Kong, where Chinese promises to maintain democratic guarantees in the former British colony have been flagrantly violated, has frightened the Taiwanese, making consensual and peaceful reunification unlikely. Taipei has meanwhile strengthened its relations with the United States and the West, despite Beijing prohibiting formal recognition of Taiwan to those who maintain diplomatic relations with China. Meanwhile, according to polls cited by CNN, only 3% of Taiwanese consider themselves first and foremost Chinese and less than 10% support reunification.
Hou, the Kuomitang candidate, also rules out talks with Beijing with a view to reunification. He says he is in favor of the gradual resumption of trade with Beijing. He proposes the 3 D therapy: deterrence, dialogue and de-escalation. And when he talks about deterrence, he explains that “the most important thing is to continue to strengthen our national defense armaments” so that China “does not easily dare to start a war.”
The US position
The Taiwan issue remains a crucial point in the difficult relations between Beijing and Washington. The United States formally broke with Taiwan when it recognized China in 1979, but maintained unofficial relations with Taipei and a commitment to providing for its defense. Already under President Donald Trump, Washington has strengthened its support for Taiwan. Biden is no exception and has already made it known that he wants to send an unofficial delegation to the island after the elections, provoking an immediate Chinese protest.
Ahead of the elections, China has maintained military pressure on Taiwan, sending military planes, drones and warships close to the island. Few experts predict an imminent invasion. But Beijing could react to a possible victory for Lai, who is slightly ahead in the polls, with new military exercises, further commercial closures and even the imposition of a blockade. “How far these actions will go, and how the United States and its allies will react, is a question that will be followed carefully” by the international community, already worried about the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, CNN underlines.