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The Geopolitical Implications of Taiwan’s Presidential Elections
US-China relations hinge on the outcome of upcoming elections in Taiwan
Photo by Winston Chen on Unsplash
Six months from now, on January 13 2024, Taiwan will hold presidential elections. Needless to say, these elections carry extremely consequential geopolitical implications and may dictate the future of US-China relations.
Taiwan is a mature, multiparty democracy and the two main candidates hold sharply different views of Taiwan’s proper relationship with The People’s Republic of China.
Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the current Vice President and represents the stronger pro-independence faction of Taiwanese politics. His main rival, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomingtang (KMT), supports closer relations between Taipei and Beijing. And this year there is a surprising third party candidate, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who is is shaking up what is conventionally a two party presidential contest.
I recently had an in-depth conversation about Taiwanese politics and these upcoming elections with Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution where he is the program manager of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region. We kick off discussing the political history of Taiwan following the Chinese civil war and then have an in-depth conversation about each of the candidates’ biographies and position on the key issue of cross-straight relations.
You can listen to the entire conversation on your preferred podcast listening app by going here. But I thought readers might be particularly interested in the segment of our conversation that speaks directly to how the elections results would impact US-China relations. I’ve excerpted that below.
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Mark Leon Goldberg: Do you foresee this election to be a referendum on cross-strait relations?
Kharis Templeman: Every election is to some degree -- that is by far the most important issue in the Taiwanese electorate. Ultimately, Taiwan's fate depends on that relationship with Beijing. The crucial question is really, should you as a leader of Taiwan seek better relations with Beijing potentially at the cost of some sovereignty and security for Taiwan? Or should you try to balance against the threat coming out of Beijing by trying to get as close to the United States and partners and allies as possible? And that ultimately will be the critical issue that voters are faced with in this election.
If you choose the KMT candidate, you're essentially casting a vote for making some concessions to the PRC, at least rhetorically, and trying to lower tensions and balance a little more between Beijing and Washington. If you vote for the DPP, you're saying continue the Tsai administration strategy of trying to get close to the United States and trying to be as respectful of the United States' concerns and interests in the relationship as possible — potentially at the cost of any sort of working relationship with Beijing.
Mark Leon Goldberg: What do you see then as the key geopolitical outcomes of the election in January?
Kharis Templeman: So the first is its effect on US-China relations. We're in, to put it mildly, a rough patch in US-China relations right now. And the long standing biggest irritant in US-China relations is the status of Taiwan. And this is an irreconcilable difference between our two countries. But over the last 40 plus years, we've found ways to manage it in a way that doesn't completely destroy the working relationship between the US and China.
So if there's a KMT president who comes into office next May that I think lowers the temperature over Taiwan, it maybe makes Taiwan a less central part of the conversation between the United States and China over our many differences. If there's another DPP president who comes into power, I think we'll see kind of a continuation of the grievance politics coming out of Beijing towards the US and blaming the US for supporting independence advocates in Taiwan and not hewing to various agreements that we've made in the past. And there will be continued military, economic and diplomatic coercion against Taiwan. And then if Ko Wen-je wins, the centrist candidate, it's a lot more uncertain what that would look like. A lot depends on how he approaches cross-strait relations, what he says to Beijing and to Washington and how those two parties react.
So we could get a lot of different outcomes here that could really dramatically shake up the US-China relationship and other second order effects on the broader kind of strategic situation.
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