After Attempts to Meddle in Taiwan’s Elections Fail, China Takes Stock

REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo
Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te, of Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) gestures as he attends a rally following the victory in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan January 13, 2024.

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwanese voters have made it clear – for the third time in a row – that they don’t want a leader who will kowtow to China. The democratic island on Saturday elected as president Lai Ching-te, the current vice president and former independence advocate whom Beijing views as a dangerous “separatist.”

Now, Beijing must craft a response.

For Beijing, Lai’s victory is a loss that deepens anxiety about its ability to bring Taiwan under its control, a long-held goal of the ruling Communist Party and a key part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s legacy. The result gives Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Beijing refuses to engage with, an unprecedented third term.

“A Lai win will mean that Xi loses face,” said Chen Fang-Yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taipei. “It means his Taiwan policy has failed. So now he must do something to show his muscle.”

In the months ahead, Beijing is expected to dial up its efforts to intimidate Taiwan using familiar coercive tactics including military harassment and economic pressure.

But actual conflict or invasion is unlikely – at least for now – officials and analysts in Taiwan and the United States say. China’s immediate actions will be tempered by a desire to maintain recently stabilized relations with Washington.

A U.S. delegation including former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former deputy secretary of state James Steinberg was set to arrive in Taipei on Sunday, according to the American Institute of Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy here.

China’s initial response to Lai’s victory was predictable: Officials used the usual strongly worded statements on Sunday, and Beijing’s embassies in countries that congratulated Lai condemned them for “interfering in China’s internal affairs.” The Chinese Embassy in London wrote: “No matter how the situation in Taiwan changes, the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China will not change.”

Four military vessels had been detected near Taiwan, the island’s Defense Ministry said Sunday morning, while a high-altitude Chinese balloon floated off the northwest coast near the capital.

For the past eight years, since the DPP took power, Beijing cut off all official ties with President Tsai Ing-wen, and it is even less likely to engage with Lai, who has previously pushed for outright independence.

Lai has moderated his position while serving as Tsai’s vice president and pledged to continue her policy of maintaining the fragile status quo and avoiding a war in the Taiwan Strait. He has said several times that he would engage with Beijing “as equals.”

But Beijing has already rejected the DPP position that Taiwan is a sovereign country under its official name, the Republic of China, and that there is no need to formalize independence and risk conflict.

Taiwanese voters, those who supported Lai and those who chose two opposition candidates, are girding themselves for a rocky four years.

“I expect the Chinese to intensify pressure on Taiwan, but I’m not afraid of them,” said Akira Chiu, 60, who works in tourism and voted for Lai. “We are ready to protect our country at any time.”

Hsieh Hsin Jung, a 26-year-old office worker in Taipei who voted for the main opposition party, the Kuomintang, which supports closer ties with China, said the DPP would bring Taiwan closer to war with China.

“I’m quite worried about Taiwan’s future because the DPP has a history of confronting China. What if China runs out of patience in the next four years and declares war? It’s not impossible,” she said.

Analysts say Beijing is not likely to take drastic action before Lai’s inauguration on May 20, the next key marker that will determine how his election will affect the uneasy relationship between Taiwan, China and the United States.

Before then, Beijing will attempt to strike a balance between intimidating Taipei and urging Washington to rein in Lai without provoking a backlash that pushes the Taiwanese public further away.

“China will keep its military pressure high to deter Lai from ‘crossing the red line’ during the inauguration speech,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

Few expect the level of force shown after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in 2022, when the Chinese military launched nearly a dozen missiles in four days of military exercises surrounding Taiwan. But Beijing can deploy other methods.

Since December, China sent more than 31 high-altitude balloons – similar to the one shot down over the United States last year – into Taiwan’s airspace, representing a new form of “gray zone” tactics meant to intimidate and use up Taiwan’s military resources.

Before the election, Beijing canceled preferential tariffs on 12 types of chemicals imported from Taiwan, part of a trade agreement in place for the past decade, and threatened to halt more.

“The cumulative impact of those steps is, Lai will become less, not more flexible on his cross-strait positions,” said Rick Waters, managing director of Eurasia Group’s China practice and formerly the State Department’s top China policy official.

Beijing will be able to use that pressure to exploit some of Lai’s weaknesses. On Sunday, Chinese state media emphasized how Lai won the presidency with only 40 percent of the vote and his party lost its majority in the legislature.

“The results of the two elections prove that the [DPP] does not represent the mainstream public opinion on the island,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement late Saturday.

Although Lai’s election was a setback for China, said Minxin Pei, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, Beijing can console itself with the knowledge that the new government is weaker than the departing one. The main opposition, the Kuomintang, now has a slight lead in the legislature.

“So except for losing face, China is substantively in a slightly better position than before,” Pei said.

Still, Beijing appears reluctant to erase the gains made when Xi and President Biden met in November, which helped reopen key channels of communication, including between the two militaries.

For that reason, China will probably hold its fire, said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund.

“I think the Chinese will hold back on some of the bigger things – maybe flying a fighter jet inside Taiwan’s territorial airspace – because they need to be able to have some things to roll out later on and because they don’t want to upset the fragile stability in U.S.-China relations,” she said.

The Biden administration reiterated in the lead-up to the election that it does not support Taiwanese independence and that it does not take a position on “the ultimate resolution of cross-Strait differences, provided they are resolved peacefully.”

That’s meant to reassure Beijing, said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the Crisis Group think tank. “It’s a clear attempt on the two sides to maintain the momentum generated out of the Xi-Biden meeting.”

Even if high-level political dialogue between Beijing and the incoming Lai administration is not possible, there is room for moderating tensions. Signaling through public statements or communicating through unofficial back channels would all help, according to Hsiao.

“This window of time we’re in is really important. It really depends on what’s communicated between the three parties. It’s an opportunity to set expectations,” she said, referring to Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

In Taipei, some residents see little point in trying to reason with Beijing. “If China wants to launch a war, no matter what Taiwan does or which party is in power, it wouldn’t be able to stop them,” said Dora Chang, a 27-year-old translator who has recently signed up for a civil-defense training course. “We all know the provocative side has always been China, not Taiwan.”