The Debate

Taiwan’s Election Isn’t About War. It’s About Clarity.

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The Debate | Opinion

Taiwan’s Election Isn’t About War. It’s About Clarity.

A spokesperson for DPP candidate William Lai pushes back on the KMT’s preferred framing of the presidential race.

Taiwan’s Election Isn’t About War. It’s About Clarity.
Credit: Depositphotos

In Taiwan, the drama of the opposition’s attempts to coalesce into a unified ticket has finally come to a close. After an Oscar worthy effort, complete with attempts to coax one another into a hotel room, a reading of a private text, and public squabbling by the candidates and their campaign staff, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) have finally decided to go their separate ways. Foxconn founder Terry Gou wrapped up his fizzling campaign, with scores of supporters being accused of bribery as the only concrete outcome of his now-abandoned candidacy.

With the TPP deflating in the polls, and a head-to-head race with the Democratic Progressive Party looming, the KMT is falling back into an old comfortable position of defining the election on cross-strait grounds. KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih has nominated media personality Jaw Shaw-kong for vice president, the self-proclaimed author of the phrase, “a vote for the DPP is a vote for sending young people to war.” Jaw immediately proclaimed next year’s election to be a choice between “war and peace.”

Jaw’s, and by extension the KMT’s, cross-strait narratives are more than just theatrics, as tempting as it would be to believe. They represent a fundamental misreading of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions, the current cross-strait situation, and the necessary precursors for a sustainable peace. If elected, they would completely reshape Taiwan’s place in the world, resulting in a Taiwan that is far more isolated, divided, and reliant on Beijing’s goodwill.

For one thing, the KMT is deeply divided on defense. Despite Hou’s coherent Foreign Affairs article outlying a commitment to a strong military, inclusive of asymmetric reforms and a 12-month conscription, these are all notions antithesis to the KMT base. In fact, the KMT has a history of opposition against asymmetric strategies. Most recently, KMT legislators attempted to block new capabilities ranging from the purchase of Harpoons to Javelins and Stingers. 

The picture becomes even more complicated with Jaw’s addition. He is an avowed opponent of the 12-month conscription, calling it a provocation to Beijing. Months earlier, when Jaw was hosting a television show, he extracted a promise from Hou to reduce the period back to four months, which Hou’s campaign later walked back. More recently, Jaw conditioned his acceptance as Hou’s VP candidate on again rolling back the conscription period, which this time was reportedly accepted.

The back and forth shows the misgivings the KMT has on the need for defense deterrence. Under former President Ma Ying-jeou between 2008 and 2016, defense spending fell to its lowest ever percentage of GDP at 1.78 percent. President Tsai Ing-wen has now increased this to over 2.5 percent, with support from a DPP-controlled legislature. Jaw and many others from the KMT see a stronger defense as a precursor to war; an enfeebled Taiwan, in their view, would be much more conducive to cross-strait peace.

This argument fits in neatly with a worldview that the CCP is ultimately benign, while the United States is whipping Taiwan into a frenzy over its continued rivalry with China. This was succinctly described in one of Jaw’s social media posts last February, titled “Taiwan should not become the sacrifice amidst China-U.S. competition.” Ukraine, he suggested, offered Taiwan a valuable lesson: Taiwan should not antagonize China because the U.S. is ultimately untrustworthy.

With the TPP fiasco far behind them — along with it claims of more nuance, balance, and a focus on domestic social issues — the reinvigorated Hou-Jaw ticket will see ideological purity on China as its golden ticket. It’s easy to see why: The TPP is in disarray and the DPP faces public fatigue after eight years in government. An emboldened KMT that is able to shore up Hou’s biggest deficiency, a lack of support on the deep-Blue end, could very well take home the election.

Already, Hou has made further concessions to Jaw and his base of support within the KMT. There would be no more dancing around the issue of the “1992 Consensus” — it would represent a full-throated acceptance of “one China.” A never-ratified trade in services agreement with China, the reason behind the 2014 Sunflower Movement, will be restarted upon a KMT election. Hou would entrust Jaw with participating in future critical decisions on diplomacy, cross-strait issues, and national defense.

All of this returns us to the fundamental differences between the KMT and DPP. The KMT has a history of ignoring or distorting the facts thrust upon them: that the CCP is a revisionist power bent on regional domination. Under China’s white paper on Taiwan released last year, the annexation of Taiwan is the only acceptable outcome – peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary. As former Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai recently said: “The Taiwan question is a matter of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity. So this is something like a life-or-death question for China … there’s no room for concession.”

With less than 50 days to go before the polls, the DPP is running on a message of clarity, not only on Beijing’s intentions towards Taiwan, but also the steps that are necessary to maintain cross-strait peace and stability. DPP presidential candidate William Lai has released a four-pillared plan for action, pledging to build stronger defense deterrence, economic security, international partnerships, and a steady and principled cross-strait leadership, building on Tsai’s commitment to the status quo.

Lai knows – as do leaders across the G-7 – that the international community has a stake in peace in the Taiwan Strait. Only by working closely with partners from around the world can we show that the risks and costs of any Chinese actions across the Taiwan Strait will be too much for them to bear. And unlike the KMT, Lai understands that far from a cautionary tale of great power competition, Ukraine has shown the value of democracies standing together in defense of shared values and common interests.

The elections on January 13, 2024 will be a choice, not on “war and peace” as claimed by the KMT, but on whether Taiwan has the clarity, will, and moral strength to make difficult decisions now, so that we are able to bring about a more peaceful future. Far from relying on Beijing’s goodwill, a future Lai administration will take Taiwan’s destiny into our own hands, responsibly working with global friends and partners to ensure sustainable peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.