Two ANU experts discuss the Taiwanese election result and its implications for the region.

In the lead-up to the Taiwanese election, dramatic statements abounded on the stakes of the vote. According to some of the key players, this election was a choice between war and peace; between democracy and autocracy.

China claims that Taiwan belongs to it, with Chinese Leader Xi Jinping calling “reunification” a “historical inevitability” in his 2024 New Year’s address.

The weekend’s poll delivered the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Lai Ching-te, the presidency, with more than 40 per cent of the vote.

Vice President in the previous government, Lai is expected to continue a status-quo approach to cross-strait relations.

Harry Genn, a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University (ANU) and a former Australian diplomat who worked on international security and China-related issues, said the high-stakes framing of the choice that faced voters obscured the broader commonalities within Taiwan on managing its relationship with China.

“In elections, in democracies parties tend to use pretty strong language and they try to talk up their differences with the other side,” he said.

“In reality, the main parties in Taiwan — the DPP, the Kuomintang (KMT), and this new third party, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) — they’ve actually got a pretty similar basic position on maintaining the cross-strait status quo and preserving Taiwan’s autonomy and democracy.”

The opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) fell short in its bid to win the presidency. Photo: jamesonwu1972/shutterstock.com

Professor Benjamin Penny, Head of the ANU Taiwan Studies Program, says the results were less informed by China and cross-strait relations than previous years.

“By what people are saying, it was much more an election based on the kind of issues we are familiar with: cost of living, housing, the state of play in Taiwan itself,” Penny said.

A survey by Taiwanese magazine Commonwealth supports this, with respondents naming economic development as the top priority for Taiwan’s next leader, followed by national security, cross-strait relations, the wealth gap and partisan wrestling.

“There were nuances about to what extent Taiwan should make overtures to the mainland and to what extent different parties, different presidential candidates would be able to negotiate or have dialogue. But it wasn’t as front of mind.”

“Compared with the last election in 2020 — that one was very much focused on China, particularly because it was in the context of the various happenings in Hong Kong around the National Security Law and the student protests that eventuated over them.”

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade congratulated Lai on his victory and the people of Taiwan on “the peaceful exercise of their democratic rights” on Sunday.

The statement — and similar messages from the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan — were met with anger from Chinese officials.

“I think the issue for Australia is really not which party or candidates win an election in Taiwan,” Genn said. “The issue is really more what can be done to encourage China to take a more constructive approach towards Taiwan?”

How will China react?

In the lead-up to the vote, China made it clear which candidate it preferred, labelling Lai a “troublemaker”. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lai “would continue to follow the evil path of provoking ‘independence’” and “take Taiwan ever further away from peace and prosperity, and ever closer to war and decline”.

China’s perception of Lai may be one challenge that could impact the president-elect’s ability to get on with governing.

“[China] never liked Tsai Ing-wen, but it seems to dislike Lai even more. It seems to think that he’s more pro-independence than she is,” Genn said. “I’m not sure that is right, but that seems to be China’s perception.”

Lai will also need to lead from a minority government and manage a China that appears impatient in wanting progress towards its vision of political ‘reunification’.

“I guess the hope is that China will see that the sort of pressure that it’s applied on Taiwan hasn’t given it the outcomes or the influence that it would like,” Genn said.

“But I think, pessimistically, it seems more likely [China] will continue to use pressure, or apply more pressure, in the hope that will get to a point where it does actually succeed in influencing what Taiwan’s electorate does and how Taiwan’s politicians behave.”

Relations between Taiwan and China have become increasingly tense. Photo: JENG BO YUAN/shutterstock.com

Penny says China may respond by removing Taiwan’s preferential tariff treatment during negotiations on the renewal of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and also by continuing Chinese aircraft activity in Taiwanese airspace.

A test lies in how China responds to the swearing-in of the new president in May, Penny said.

“If there is any Chinese action, it may well occur around the inauguration period, as opposed to now or in two weeks’ or a month’s time”.

The forthcoming election of a president of the Taiwanese legislature will also reveal the balance of power within the legislative body, including what role other parties might have in the new government.

“Lai would be very aware that, at the last election, Tsai Ing-wen got 57 per cent of the vote — he’s on 40 … He’s not, therefore, in a position to march into power, all flags waving and do everything he wants to immediately,” Penny said. “So we shall see.”

Top image: Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te. Photo: jamesonwu1972/shutterstock.com

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