The presidential election in Taiwan in January 2024 is seen as an inflection point with broad implications for Taiwan, China, and the United States. However, the election is unlikely to represent a turning point for U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China in 2024.
The main reason for continuity in U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China is the strong momentum behind ever-growing U.S. efforts to counter serious challenges posed by the Chinese government and Taiwan’s important role in countering those challenges.
In addition, there is little possibility of Taiwan’s new president taking strongly provocative actions against Beijing, as Taiwanese voters and politicians have been intimidated by Beijing’s unending shows of force and strongly disapprove of a president provoking a military attack. An added reason is the likelihood that the new president will favor continued cooperation with U.S. efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s deterrence.
U.S. Countering China’s Challenges and Taiwan’s Role
Defending the United States against adverse Chinese practices has remained at the top of U.S. security, economic, and governance priorities for six years. Led by two very different administrations and bipartisan majorities in Congress, the efforts have received broad approval in pubic opinion and U.S. media. Taiwan figures ever more prominently in leading U.S. strategic, economic, and governance efforts to counter China’s ambitions.
The Biden administration has successfully completed a first stage of strengthening the United States at home and building positions of power and influence abroad with an ever growing array of allies and partners. The passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill in 2021 and two massive bills in 2022 were important in competing with China, especially in high technology. Then came a ban on U.S. advanced computer chip technology exports to China in 2022 and an Executive Order restricting high technology U.S. investments to China in 2023.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s strong military reaction to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan advanced U.S. strengthening aboard. President Joe Biden and his aides built on U.S.-backed NATO resolve to counter Russia and its partner, China. They connected NATO with Japan and other Asia-Pacific powers like Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand. Led by Biden, G-7 countries and NATO showed unprecedented concern with China’s adverse impact on Asian security, high technology, and supply chain interests, including coercive behavior toward Taiwan. Biden achieved unprecedented cooperation as South Korea and the Philippines and aligned more closely with Quadrilateral Dialogue partners Japan, Australia, and India.
Washington’s Dire View of Chinese Challenges
China’s multifaceted challenges to the United States can be grouped in three broad categories.
First is China’s over three decades of rapid development of modern military power, tipping the balance in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Chinese territorial expansionism, and undermining U.S. alliances and partnerships in seeking dominance in the region.
Second are China’s similarly longstanding state-directed development practices. Chinese firms, with state backing, plunder foreign intellectual property rights. Wide ranging and well financed Chinese party-state measures massively intervene in markets, undermining international competitors. Now China seeks global dominance in major high technology industries and related military power to displace the United States.
Third is China’s challenge to global governance. Beijing leverages economic dependence, influence operations including pervasive corruption and elite capture, and control of important infrastructure to compel deference to its preferences. It thereby legitimates China’s predatory economic practices and territorial expansionism; opposes accountable governance, human rights and democracy; opposes U.S. alliances; and supports violent expansionism by Russia and abusive authoritarian rule of other often corrupt world leaders unaccountable to their citizens.
Two challenges are particularly dangerous, existential threats to fundamental U.S. national security and well being. The first is China’s effort to undermine U.S. power and influence in and dominate Asia. The second is Beijing’s quest to seek dominance in the high technology industries of the future. Such dominance would make the United States subservient to China economically, and because such technology is essential to modern national security, militarily as well.
Seeking to avoid this fate has remained a strong overall driver of the efforts of bipartisan majorities in Congress and administration partners to defend the United States against China’s challenges.
Taiwan’s Important Role in U.S. Hardening Against China’s Practices
Taiwan figures ever more prominently in all three of the above mentioned clusters of challenges. Taiwan’s key location and its role in the Indo-Pacific region are highly valued by U.S. policymakers seeking to counter adverse Chinese advances. Taiwan’s high technology industries represent a critical element in U.S. economic competition with Beijing. Finally, Taiwan’s political democracy, free market economy, and respect for international norms support U.S. leaders seeking to protect the existing international order from China’s challenges.
Meanwhile, Beijing is applying heavy military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan in order to change the status quo in directions favored by China. This has resulted in U.S. increasing support for Taiwan. Past brakes that curbed U.S. advances with Taiwan in order to preserve cooperative ties with China are now much less important in current U.S. policymaking. There have been incremental but substantial military, diplomatic, and military advances in U.S. government support for Taiwan. Particularly notable are Biden’s repeated affirmations that the U.S. will support Taiwan if it is attacked by China. Still, these practices are said to remain in line with a broad-ranging definition of Washington’s one China policy.
The war in Gaza and the Biden-Xi Jinping summit in California this year have been accompanied by senior administration and congressional leaders affirming more military support for Taiwan and hardening against Chinese expansionism and adverse economic practices.
Taiwan Election Outcomes and U.S. Responses
If elected, ruling party candidate William Lai is widely predicted to continue the ever closer relations with the United States developed by outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, whom Lai has served as vice president. Cooperation between Washington and Taipei in dealing with China is closer now than at any time since the height of the Cold War.
Lai’s main opponent, Hou Yu-ih, represents the Kuomintang (KMT) which maintains regular contacts with the Chinese Communist Party and is identified with policies seeking to engage more closely with Beijing. Nonetheless, public opinion in Taiwan has compelled Hou to play down the KMT’s past adherence to policies in line with Beijing’s view of one China. Hou and his associates have worked hard to reassure U.S. officials and opinion leaders that his rule would continue to cooperation with U.S. efforts to build resiliency in Taiwan to deter Chinese attack.
Hou and his party are viewed with suspicion by some in Congress and opinion leaders. His efforts as president to strengthen Taiwan’s military capacities may be less robust than those undertaken by a Lai presidency. If that were to happen, criticism could increase in Congress and perhaps in the administration of Taiwan “free riding” at U.S. expense in the effort to counter China. Given Taiwan’s important role in U.S. efforts to counter Chinese challenges, the Biden government in the last year of its term seems less likely than critics in Congress to publicly turn against the Taiwan president.
Looking Further Out
While Taiwan’s election may have less impact than often assumed, the U.S. election is coming as well. Continuity in U.S. support for Taiwan and hardening against China will face an inflection point if Biden is replaced by Donald Trump or some other candidate with strong “America First” leanings in the November 2024 elections.
As president, Trump’s erratic behavior toward China and very disruptive behavior toward allies undermined the effectiveness of that administration’s efforts to defend the United States from China’s challenges. Since the president has enormous powers in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, a repeat of Trump’s behavior in 2025 would likely work to the advantage of Beijing and the loss of the United States and its allies and partners, especially Taiwan.