Taiwan President-Elect To Seek Cooperation With Japan, U.S.; China’s De-Facto Interference in Election Backfired

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Supporters of Taiwan’s president-elect Lai Ching-te shout happily in Taipei on Saturday.

Taiwan’s Vice President Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party won the Taiwan presidential election on Saturday. The president-elect is set to boost cooperation with the United States and Japan to counter China, with an eye on growing pressure from Beijing in the future.

With China maintaining its uncompromising stance against Taiwan, the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region is likely to become even more tense.

When his victory became certain on Saturday night, Lai appeared before his supporters with a broad smile, waving in response to their cheers.

“People in Taiwan successfully deterred interference from external forces with their actions,” he said, apparently thinking of China, which has effectively interfered with the election.

But he also indicated his intention to nurture cross-Strait peace. “Under the principles of dignity and parity, we will pursue exchanges and cooperation with China,” he said.

During the election campaign, Lai avoided declaring a pro-independence position, which has caused concern both at home and abroad, and pledged to carry on President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy of maintaining the status quo. He reiterated this stance on Saturday, saying he will continue the methods and approaches Tsai has used.

In its stance toward Beijing, Taiwan has been keeping pace with the United States in consideration for Washington, which wants to avoid friction with China.

During his visit to the United States in August last year, Lai stressed his intention to focus on maintaining ties with Washington, telling a U.S. news agency that Taiwan will continue “cooperating closely with the international community, while deepening our democracy.” He also said, “I believe the U.S. will continue to support us.”

Lai’s choice of Hsiao Bi-khim as his running mate was meant to win trust from Washington. Hsiao is a former representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, which is Taiwan’s contact organization in America.

Lai is deeply concerned about military pressure from China, which is expected to heighten. During the Tsai administration, which has resolutely faced off with China, Beijing has made it normal for its forces to cross the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which has worked as a de facto ceasefire line between Taiwan and mainland China.

Given the increasing gap in the military strength of Taiwan and China, it is increasingly important for Taiwan to boost cooperation with Japan, the United States and European countries.

According to a source close to the Chinese government, the Tsai side secretly informed Beijing of the content of her inauguration address in 2016 before she took office and Beijing gave a signal that it was within permissible limits. But China subsequently changed its stance to attack the Tsai administration.

China is more wary of Lai than it is of Tsai, but the president-elect does not have any direct means to force concessions from China. Given the situation, it is expected to be difficult for Lai to make a breakthrough in the China-Taiwan situation.

Pressure expected to continue

The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has attempted replacing the Taiwan administration in the latest presidential election, having ceased dialogue with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and upsetting the country through both military and economic means.

However, its de-facto interference, as a diplomatic source in Beijing described it, ended up making voters wary and resulted in Vice President Lai Ching-te’s victory.

As there is no room for the Xi administration to make concessions to the DPP administration, China is highly likely to use pressure as its prime tactic to influence the island.

Ahead of the recent presidential election, the Xi administration criticized Lai, calling him an “obstinate Taiwan independence worker” while providing indirect support to the opposition Kuomintang party, which is following a policy of reconciliation toward China.

Although Beijing refrained from creating an extremely tense situation right before the election, it has been said that it conducted “cognitive warfare,” distributing information disadvantageous to Lai on social media.

A high-ranking Chinese government official in charge of Taiwan affairs also pressured voters, saying that the election was a choice between “peace and war” and “prosperity and decline.”

As long as the DPP is in power, the Xi administration will be unable to propose negotiations toward a peaceful reunification. Therefore, China is unlikely to change its policy of seeking reunification against the backdrop of its military strength.

President Xi said China’s reunification with Taiwan is a “historical inevitability.” He also made it clear that China would never rule out the use of force in bringing the island under its control. Xi is highly likely to step up moves to change the status quo of China-Taiwan relations, taking advantage of Lai’s statements and actions.

However, it appears that China does not aim to make the situation excessively tense for the time being, as that might affect Taiwan businesspeople traveling between China and Taiwan to make investments in China. It could also prompt Japan, South Korea and other neighboring countries to refrain from investing in China, a development that could spur a slowdown in the Chinese economy.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council did not criticize Lai by name in its statement on Saturday. Sources close to China-Taiwan relations said it was relatively mild in content.