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China and Russia Are Trying to Stack the Deck in 2024 Elections

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China Power | Politics | East Asia

China and Russia Are Trying to Stack the Deck in 2024 Elections

Beijing is attempting to sway Taiwan’s voters, while Moscow aims to tilt the U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump.

China and Russia Are Trying to Stack the Deck in 2024 Elections
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

2024 will see the governments of China and Russia attempt to use their political and economic influence to influence critical elections. Beijing seeks to block the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from sweeping Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on January 13. Moscow, meanwhile, aims to shore up Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election on November 5. Responding to autocracies’ interference campaigns in their elections poses dilemmas for constitutional democracies. 

Beijing Is Attempting to Sway the Election in Taiwan 

The Taiwan issue is characterized by Chinese officials as the “core of the core interests of China.” One of Beijing’s most important policy goals in 2024 is ensuring the defeat of DPP presidential candidate William Lai in Taiwan’s January election. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) harbors deep suspicions of the DPP’s anti-authoritarian roots, resents its promotion of Taiwanese language and identity, and believes that another DPP victory will reduce the probability of unification on Beijing’s terms. 

The CCP’s antipathy for the DPP is longstanding. In the lead up to Taiwan’s 2004 elections, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, then the president of Taiwan, announced a referendum on independence, leading to furor from Beijing, as well as warnings from the United States that it would not support a departure from the cross-strait status quo. In the face of Washington’s opposition, Chen watered down the referendum questions, which failed to attract a quorum anyway after the opposition boycotted the vote. 

DPP leaders have moderated and no longer call for de jure independence, although they remain deeply wary of Beijing and support the status quo of de facto independence. In her inaugural address in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen said she would be a staunch “guardian of peace” and would maintain cross-strait dialogues (Beijing preemptively severed such contacts anyway). In a subsequent speech on the Republic of China’s National Day, Tsai went further, saying she would “maintain both Taiwan’s democracy and the status quo of peace across the Taiwan Strait.” 

Tsai’s would-be successor, current Vice President William Lai, has similarly committed to maintaining the cross-strait status quo. Despite Lai’s regrettable comments in 2017, where he termed himself “a political worker who advocates Taiwan independence,” the DPP’s presidential candidate has moderated on the issue. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on July 4, Lai explicitly said: “I will support the cross-strait status quo – which is in the best interests of both the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known, and the international community.”

The DPP’s measured position on cross-strait ties has not satisfied the CCP, however, as Beijing’s antipathy is largely driven by fundamental differences over ideology and identity, not policy. Beijing suspended cross-strait dialogue on the day of Tsai’s inauguration and has not resumed talks despite Tsai’s support of the status quo and calls for dialogue. Beijing’s hostility to the DPP is now manifesting through interference in Taiwan’s upcoming elections, as it seeks to elevate alternative parties and candidates.

Beijing’s electoral interference has ranged from semi-overt to brazen. Beijing is ramping up disinformation campaigns against the DPP via social media. More blatantly, Beijing has also been conducting an “investigation” into Taiwan’s so-called trade barriers, constricting commerce with the island, harming living standards in Taiwan, and undermining the DPP’s performance legitimacy to the electorate. In a very unsubtle nod to the political nature of its investigation, China’s Commerce Ministry will conclude the investigation on January 12, the day before Taiwan’s presidential election. 

The economic implications of the investigation are significant. Mainland China and Hong Kong accounted for 42 percent of Taiwan’s exports in 2021 and 39 percent in 2022. This year, however, the share has slipped to 35 percent, as Taiwan’s year-to-date exports to mainland China and Hong Kong through November stand at $139 billion, down 19 percent from prior year levels, according to ROC Ministry of Finance statistics. Part of the decline is attributable to weakness in Taiwan’s chip industry, which has been impacted by China-U.S. trade tensions. On the other hand, China’s trade measures have disproportionately targeted traditional DPP constituencies, likely weakening support for the party’s candidates, including Lai. 

Beijing has also used its economic influence to shape the presidential election’s field and consolidate opposition to the DPP. Terry Gou, billionaire founder of Foxconn, withdrew his quixotic presidential campaign bid after Beijing launched an investigation into his company. Chinese state media sources heavily implied that the investigation was undertaken over concerns that Gou’s candidacy would split the anti-DPP vote and bolster Lai’s chances. 

Beijing also may have attempted to help broker a unity ticket between the DPP’s two main rivals, although this is difficult to prove. 

It’s not clear how Washington and Brussels should respond – or should have responded – to Beijing’s blatant interference in Taiwan’s elections. Perhaps the best course of action is to call out the CCP’s interference campaigns while privately hinting that the electoral meddling could ultimately backfire, produce the outcome Beijing seeks to avoid, and further entrench opposition to the CCP on the island. 

In any event, the stakes of Taiwan’s election, while serious, are not existential. All three major presidential candidates – from the DPP, the KMT, and Taiwan People’s Party – appear committed to constitutional democracy’s first principles, such as respecting the rule of law and pluralism. Similarly, all three candidates support the cross-strait status quo, albeit in different ways and to different degrees. Taiwan’s democracy will outlast its next presidential election, regardless of Beijing’s interference. 

Moscow Is Attempting to Defeat Ukraine and End NATO via the U.S. Presidential Election

While Taiwan’s electoral interference challenges are serious but manageable, the world’s oldest democracy is in grave danger. The United States stands on the verge of multiple constitutional crises amplified by Moscow’s sophisticated economic and political interference campaigns. 

Former President Donald Trump is currently favored to become the next president of the United States. He also faces 91 felony charges, was impeached for incitement of insurrection, says he will be a “day one dictator,” and has called for termination of parts of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, Trump has flirted with pulling out of NATO; resents that he was impeached for blackmailing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019; and has said, ominously, that he will end the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 24 hours. 

Consequently, the Kremlin will almost certainly support Trump’s candidacy for a third time, due to the chaos another Trump presidency will wreak in its main adversary, the damage it will inflict on NATO and the U.S. alliance system, and the very real prospect that a Trump White House will deliver victory for Russian forces in Ukraine. 

Vladimir Putin’s history of electoral interference campaigns demonstrate a keen understanding of the dynamics of elections in Western democracies, and an awareness of how to leverage Russia’s limited economic capacity to strengthen Moscow’s preferred candidates. Putin’s first use of the energy tool to influence foreign elections may have occurred nearly two decades ago, in September 2005, when he inaugurated a gas pipeline just 10 days ahead of the German elections, in order to reinforce the candidacy of then-German Chancellor Gerard Schroder. 

Putin has continued to use Russia’s oil leverage to influence Western political outcomes, especially in the United States. Russia cut crude oil production ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, raising consumer prices; boosted output in September 2018 before the U.S. midterm elections; and, along with OPEC+, sharply decreased production in October 2022. In each instance, Putin’s oil production choices aligned with Trump’s political interests. Russia and other oil autocracies appear extremely likely to cut production ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential election, in order to boost Trump’s candidacy. 

It’s unclear how much Beijing will – or can – tolerate turmoil in oil markets, however. China is the world’s largest crude oil importer and will suffer, at least temporarily, if Putin inflicts yet more pain on the global economy ahead of the U.S. presidential election. 

Furthermore, Trump’s return to the White House could lead to the reimposition of “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran and probably Venezuela over the medium term, sending world prices higher, all things being equal, and raising Beijing’s oil import bill when it already faces economic stress

In a worst-case scenario for Beijing, Trump’s imposition of aggressive new sanctions against Iran and close business ties to Saudi Arabia could lead either country to seek a nuclear weapon, injecting major instability in a region that accounts for half of China’s oil imports. While Beijing has taken a more assertive diplomatic role in the region, brokering the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran, its ability to manage a highly combustible “triangle of doom” between Trump, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is highly uncertain. 

Accordingly, while Beijing and Moscow share an interest in splitting the Western alliance, China’s desire to maintain stability in oil markets may contradict Russia’s interest in bolstering Trump’s candidacy.   

Authoritarian Governments Are Attempting to Shape Elections, and Succeeding 

The world’s two most powerful autocracies are poised to achieve some success in their respective interference campaigns. While the DPP appears likely to secure a victory in the presidential race, Beijing’s economic sanctions against Taiwan and informational campaigns on the island will likely ensure, at a minimum, that control of the legislature flips to the KMT. 

Similarly, the Kremlin’s support of Donald Trump appears likely to pay significant and potentially huge dividends. Another close election will further damage U.S. democracy, at a minimum, while the elevation of the twice-impeached figure to the U.S. presidency would likely undermine the Ukrainian war effort, potentially end NATO, and perhaps even eliminate constitutional democracy as a viable challenge to the populist authoritarian nationalism espoused by Putin and his fellow travelers.

Both Beijing and Moscow are relying on informational and, perhaps more importantly, economic tools to weaken their opponents’ electoral prospects and, in some cases, strengthen their preferred candidates.  These authoritarian influence campaigns pose thorny dilemmas for liberal democracies. Should constitutional democracies stand by and simply observe as authoritarian governments interfere in their electoral processes and potentially anoint their preferred candidates? And if they counteract these efforts, how to do so?