Security in the Taiwan Strait Remains Uncertain After Lai’s Election

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Security in the Taiwan Strait Remains Uncertain After Lai’s Election

The relative peace in the Taiwan Strait is likely to continue in the next few months and possibly years, but that peace will be punctuated by tensions and crises.

Security in the Taiwan Strait Remains Uncertain After Lai’s Election

This handout photo from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense shows a PLA J-11 fighter jet, which the MND says encroached on Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Aug. 4, 2022.

Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC (Taiwan)

The world was watching the events in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections with some trepidation. This anxiety has not subsided following the announcement of the election results on January 13, as peace and security in the Taiwan strait remain as uncertain as ever.

Prior to the elections, China made it absolutely clear that it did not wish the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) to be the winner, calling him a “dangerous separatist.” To Beijing’s deep disappointment, however, Lai has now been elected as the next Taiwanese president. How will China respond to the election results in the coming weeks or months?

Not surprisingly, China has disparaged the election results, claiming that the DPP does not “represent mainstream public opinion on the island.” 

China’s initial reaction has been rather subdued, simply reiterating its long-standing and strong commitment to unification with Taiwan. But various spokespeople have emphasized that the results will not “impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification,” which is consistent with the message of “historical inevitability” Xi Jinping conveyed in his New Year speech before the election. This is clearly a reminder to Taiwan and its foreign supporters that the fate of the island is not entirely in the hands of the Taiwanese.

Four Chinese warships near the island were detected by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry the day after the election. According to the ministry, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) staged its largest military maneuvers, conducting joint air and naval combat patrols near Taiwan on January 18. Twenty-four PLA aircraft and five PLA Navy vessels were said to be involved in this operation.

Hitherto, China’s responses have been confined mainly to a war of words with Taiwan. Nevertheless, more belligerent actions before Lai takes office in May cannot be ruled out. Large-scale military drills or regular dispatches of warships and fighter jets to the Taiwan area will certainly undermine the stability and security of the Asia-Pacific, which would be detrimental to the regional economy, with wider economic ramifications.

The Taiwan Strait is a major shipping route between China, Japan, Europe, and America with 88 percent of the world’s largest ships passing through these waters. Although China’s military exercises have not seriously affected container shipping, some vessels have had to maneuver around PLA drill zones to access ports in the region. 

Another concern of frequent Chinese military activities in the Taiwan Strait is that accidents or miscalculations could occur, which might lead to unintended or catastrophic consequences. This is particularly worrying as all official ties and formal communications between China and Taiwan have been suspended since Tsai Ing-wen became the president in 2016.

In addition, Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of semiconductors, which are essential components of digital devices and products from cars to mobile phones, healthcare to military equipment. A major conflict in Taiwan would definitely disrupt this supply chain, affecting the life of the people across the world.

While maintaining its commitment to the “One China policy,” the Biden administration in the United States has shown a greater willingness to defend Taiwan’s security and approved more arms sales to Taiwan. The controversial visit of U.S House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022 infuriated China. Beijing responded to the visit by firing multiple missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan and launching massive military exercises around the island.

Indeed, China has intensified its military threat against Taiwan over the past two years. On September 18, 2023, for example, China dispatched more than 100 fighter jets and nine warships into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest incursion within one single day.

If, for whatever reason, the United States were to be involved in an armed conflict in the Taiwan area, it would bring the two superpowers into direct confrontation, with profound regional and global security implications. The United States has close military allies in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, that could become involved, especially as staging points for U.S. military operations. U.S. allies in Europe may well be dragged into such a conflict one way or another.

Xi Jinping has emphasized “reunification with Taiwan” as a major national goal, which is a vital part of his “China dream” for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” While China would prefer to achieve its reunification goal peacefully, it has never renounced the use of force to take over Taiwan. However, it is unlikely that it will opt for a military solution to the Taiwan issue for the time being.

Most analysts believe that China does not yet possess full military capability to take Taiwan by force, especially if it has the backing of the United States. In addition, China is currently facing considerable economic difficulties due mainly to the long lingering COVID-19 lockdowns. Beijing is also keen to stabilize its relations with Washington following the Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco in November 2023.

What China might do is exert further economic pressure on Taiwan by banning individual tourists from visiting Taiwan, fining Taiwanese companies that operate within China, terminating tariff reductions on some products, and imposing import bans on Taiwanese products.

Despite the coercion from China, Lai has vowed to preserve Taiwan’s distinctive identity and democratic values. He has stated that he intends to continue with Tsai Ing-wen’s China policy, and that he will aim to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations. Taiwan will no doubt strengthen its defense capabilities further and develop a closer relationship with Washington in order to deter Beijing from invading the island.

The Taiwan election is over, but the uncertain factors threatening regional and global security and prosperity remain.

China insists that the election outcome has not changed “the fact that Taiwan is part of China.” It has criticized the United States, Japan and other Western countries for congratulating president-elect Lai, asserting that this is “a serious interference in China’s internal affairs.”

It can be expected that Beijing will continue to exert economic and military pressure on Taiwan and constrain its international activities where possible. But China would try to avoid a major armed conflict with Taiwan, which might trigger an unpredictable reaction and intervention from the United States.

Undoubtedly, China is in the process of reassessing its Taiwan strategy in the light of the election outcome.

As Lai just won 40 percent of the votes, China will seek to fortify the pro-unification forces in Taiwan hoping that the DPP will lose power in the next election. Indeed, President Xi Jinping urged the Chinese Communist Party to “do a better job” in “winning the hearts of the Taiwanese people” in a 2022 speech. This speech was published in the party journal Qiushi two days after the election, and the timing of the publication is significant. So it is possible that China will make a greater effort to influence and shape Taiwan’s public opinion in the next few years.

The relative peace in the Taiwan Strait is likely to continue in the next few months and possibly years, but that peace will be punctuated by tensions and crises. This is a volatile situation but unless and until Chinese and Taiwanese leaders are able to find a satisfactory solution to the intractable problem, maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan strait is probably the best we can hope for.

A longer version of the article was published on King’s College’s website.