Taiwan Presidential Election: Voters Indicate Continued Wariness toward China

Taiwan’s voters have chosen to maintain the current administration’s hard-line approach to China. The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping should respect the will of the people as demonstrated in the Taiwan election and refrain from coercive behavior and actions backed by military force.

Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — the vice president under the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, which has kept its distance from China — won the Taiwan presidential election. He defeated such candidates as New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s largest opposition party, which has taken a conciliatory stance on China. Lai will be inaugurated as president in May.

Taiwan’s voters tend to shun long-term administrations, as the island previously endured authoritarian rule by the KMT for years. This is the first time since 1996 that one political party has remained in power for three consecutive terms.

Under a policy of neither provoking nor giving in to China, the Tsai administration has sought to maintain the status quo in relations with Beijing by deepening cooperation with the United States and strengthening Taiwan’s defense capabilities. Lai has expressed his intention to continue this policy.

If Taiwan takes a conciliatory stance like one touted by Hou to deal with the Xi administration, which has openly stated its intention to realize China-Taiwan unification, its autonomy could be undermined and Taiwan could be swallowed up by China. Such fears among Taiwan’s voters may have led to Lai’s victory.

In recent years, China has repeatedly conducted military exercises around Taiwan. Ahead of the election, it also announced a halt to its preferential tariffs on some imports from Taiwan. It is clear that Beijing intended to pressure the DPP and provide indirect support to Hou.

If China thinks it can manipulate the will of the Taiwan people in its favor through pressure, it is wrong.

China has been hostile to Lai, regarding him as a “separatist,” but the more forcefully Beijing threatens the new administration, the more likely Taiwan’s people will shun it. The Xi administration should be aware that such a situation is not in China’s interest and initiate dialogue with Taiwan.

Escalation of the confrontation between China and Taiwan could lead to regional instability, which would also be disadvantageous for Japan and the United States. Tokyo and Washington should urge Lai to prevent such heightened conflict and prepare to ease tensions.

Meanwhile, in a legislative election held simultaneously with the presidential race, opposition forces strengthened their presence, and the DPP lost its majority. These election results appear attributable to the fact that economic issues close to residents’ lives became a point of contention, along with the policies on China.

Voters can be said to have demonstrated their frustration with the current administration’s inability to take effective measures — despite the severity of the problems — against soaring real estate prices and widening income inequality.

Lai intends to focus Taiwan’s economic efforts not on China but on Japan, the United States and Southeast Asia. To stabilize the base of his administration, he needs to win support from the people by putting forth effective measures.

(From the latest edition of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 14, 2024)