Taiwan’s presidential election is coming on January 13, 2024. The poll is already attracting attention due to its implications for China-U.S. relations and geopolitics. Taiwanese Vice President William Lai, the presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is currently leading in polls, generating speculation as to what his election would mean for Taiwan and the world.
Despite Lai’s reiteration of his intention to maintain the status quo, concerns linger over his previous self-description as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence.” The title given to a recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek – “Can he keep the peace?” – represents these concerns. China always claims that any move it makes to escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait was provoked by Taiwanese moves toward independence.
However, basic political realities will push any Taiwanese leader to play the role of a peacekeeper and refrain from making risky moves. Understanding this context is important to promote Taiwan-U.S. cooperation, face the challenges posed by China, and “keep the peace,” as Bloomberg Businessweek put it.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and especially following China’s aggressive response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, the question of how to maintain the regional stability of the West Pacific, especially the Taiwan Strait, has been essential to U.S. foreign policy. The crux of the U.S. strategy is to make Chinese leaders feel that they still have time and room to solve the Taiwan problem peacefully in the future, so that China will not resort to a military approach now. Taiwan coming under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is counter to the U.S. national interest, given Taiwan’s shared values of democracy, critical geographic position, and semiconductor manufacturing capability. Managing the U.S. support to Taiwan enough to help Taiwan maintain the status quo, but not so much as to encourage Taiwanese leaders to declare independence, which China claims would force it to react with force, has been a critical part of U.S. policy on cross-strait relations.
Therefore, when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian, who led the DPP to victory in a presidential election for the first time in 2000, made moves toward a more formal independent status for Taiwan, it caused concern in both Beijing and Washington. In 2007, Chen proposed a referendum over whether the government should apply for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan; both the U.S. and Chinese governments opposed the initiative, which was designed to change the status quo of the strait. Since then, whether a DPP presidential candidate would make the same move as Chen has been a core question for international observers.
Thus, when the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen became the Taiwanese president in 2016, her attitude toward Taiwan independence was frequently questioned. Even well into her administration, when her track record should have been enough to speak for itself, she continued to face pointed questions about the topic. During an interview with the BBC in 2020, Tsai emphasizes that “we don’t have a need to declare ourselves independent” because “we are already a functionally independent country.”
Coming to the end of her second term, Tsai’s administration – and the DPP, which also controls Taiwan’s Legislature Yuan – have kept the promise of maintaining the status quo and stability of the region. The question now becomes whether her vice president, William Lai will keep the same policy direction if elected or follow in the footsteps of Chen Shui-bian..
Facing questions in his interview with Bloomberg, Lai explained that “pragmatism means abiding by reality.” Echoing Tsai, he reiterated “It is not necessary to declare independence” and underscored the need to “work to maintain the peaceful status quo.”
In fact, the statements of both Tsai and Lai are in accordance with DPP’s “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future” passed by the party congress in 1999, which recognizes Taiwan as an independent sovereign state and vows to guard its liberal democracy. This is, in fact, the status quo, as the Resolution notes. However, these statements are sometimes mistakenly marked as “Taiwan independence,” a stance that will “provoke” China.
Beyond Lai’s statements that he will continue Tsai’s policy, other factors will restrict any Taiwanese president from moving toward “Taiwan independence.” The first is China’s growing military and its deterrent effect. While it is often discussed how to deter China from launching an invasion of Taiwan, China is also deterring other national leaders from making certain decisions with its power.
China has strengthened its military significantly this decade, with its defense budget increasing from $143.2 billion in 2010 to $298 billion in 2022. Looking at one specific category – fighter jets – makes clear the implications of this spending for Taiwan. In 2008, Taiwan had 390 fighter jets, and China had 330 within range of Taiwan. However, by 2022, Taiwan owned 450 fighters, including trainers, against 800 in China’s Eastern and Southern Theater, which are supposed to support operations around Taiwan.
The difference in the military gap between 2008 – the end of Chen’s administration – and today creates a new context with a new calculus for leaders. It is becoming more challenging for Taiwan to defend itself against a Chinese invasion, especially without U.S. support, and thus current Taiwanese leaders would be more restricted from making controversial decisions than Chen Shui-bian was.
Second, despite favoring independence from China, the Taiwanese public recognizes the need to prevent a war with China. That too will discourage Taiwan’s democratically elected government from changing the status quo. The latest survey by National Chengchi University showed that 82.1 percent of Taiwanese people prefer to maintain the status quo, and only about 5 percent support independence as soon as possible. Adding more context, the Taiwan National Security Survey by Duke University indicated that 62.5 percent of Taiwanese people will support Taiwan independence if China does not attack Taiwan in response, but the number decreases to 29.8 percent if China is expected to launch an attack. This difference shows the rationality of Taiwanese people and the Chinese deterrent effect, making the Taiwanese public more cautious about “Taiwan independence.”
Furthermore, in 2018 Taiwanese voters rejected a proposal to use “Taiwan” – rather than “Chinese Taipei – as the name to participate in the Tokyo Olympics. This suggests that Taiwanese people recognize the geopolitical risks brought by even a symbolic move not directly related to Taiwan’s formal status. As a result, Taiwan’s democracy will make Lai move to the middle. In a democracy, any candidate deviating from the majority’s opinion can hardly get elected – or sustain their control of the government once voted into office.
On that note, even under Chen Shui-bian, the gambit to push Taiwan independence proved to be an ineffective election tactic. When he proposed the referendum on Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations, Chen believed it would help the DPP win the presidential election in 2008. He was wrong: The DPP faced a disastrous defeat in the 2008 election. Beyond losing the presidency, its seat tally in the Legislative Yuan had decreased from 89 to 27, accounting for only 24 percent of legislators. Any practical and rational statesperson would learn from that experience and conclude that formal moves toward Taiwan independence are ineffective election tactics.
In short, Taiwanese people and their leaders have shown they are willing to maintain the peace and status quo, despite China’s best efforts to convince the world otherwise. Beijing strives to portray collaboration between Taiwan and the United States as a catalyst encouraging the declaration of Taiwan independence. By making Washington wary of supporting Taiwan, China is trying to create an advantageous environment for its strategic goals in the West Pacific region. For example, U.S. hesitation in developing military cooperation with Taiwan, for fear of “provoking” China, would impair the trust between the United States and Taiwan, hinder Taiwan’s military preparation, and shake its resolve of resistance. That hands China advantages in achieving its strategic and military goals.
The U.S. government has long stated that “we do not support Taiwan independence,” but policymakers in Washington should also recognize that the environment in and surrounding Taiwan has made a formal move toward independence less and less likely. The strengthened Chinese military, its deterrent effect, and the consensus of the Taiwanese public will restrain any presidential candidate from behaving boldly after getting elected.
But while Taiwan and the United States are preserving the status quo, China is scaling up its military activities in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Peace is in the world’s interests, but it requires identifying the real threat: the behaviors of an assertive China rather than democratic Taiwan. Identifying these realities will help Taiwan and the United States manage geopolitical challenges through deeper cooperation before and after Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.