Taiwanese Election Victory Sets Stage for Escalating Tensions with China in 2024

Image Credit: Jack Brind via Unsplash

The triumph of The Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan's January 13th elections has foreshadowed another year with escalating tensions with China. This article delves into the ins and outs of the DPP victory and the potential ramifications for cross-strait relations, exploring the intricate dynamics between Taiwan and China on the global stage.

Taiwanese elections on the 13th of January resulted in the victory of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, reigniting renewed tensions between Taiwan and China. Lai beat out other popular candidates from Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People's Party (TPP) to take the position, in addition to his running mate, Hsiao Louise Bi-khim, achieving 40.1% of the vote. This result marked the continuation of the DPP’s eighth year of power since the election of the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2016. This election has attracted attention from around the globe, already earning the title of one of the most significant elections of 2024, and has prompted the question - will Taiwanese and Chinese tensions continue to escalate? 

Recently, president-elect Lai ran a campaign committed to protecting ‘Taiwan with my [Lai’s] life, and to ensure cross-strait peace’, considering Taiwan’s ever-escalating conflict with China. Historically the island became the Republic of China after General Chiang and the KMT party were defeated by Mao Ze-dong’s Chinese Communist Party in 1949, which led to the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the Chinese mainland. China has consistently claimed Taiwan as a province of the PRC, with the aim of reunification. Before the election the Chinese ‘Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait’ described the elections as choices between ‘peace and war, prosperity and decline’, and Lai used his late dog and Hsiao’s cats as campaign mascots perhaps to symbolise the animalistic fight for survival this election represented. 

Before the election the Chinese ‘Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait’ described the elections as choices between ‘peace and war, prosperity and decline’. 

The president-elect, Lai, has previously held the position of vice president since 2020 and was historically a strict advocate for declaring Taiwanese independence. Under Tsai’s presidency, he facilitated a more formalised relationship with the U.S, with visits from figures such as Nancy Pelosi. The annual military spending was also almost doubled, a large amount on American weapons. The DPP's campaign focused on building up their domestic security capabilities and using arms as a defence against China, coupled with further cooperation with the United States. However, possibilities of further cooperation with China were not ignored, dependent on Chinese force. Lai also hinted at reducing economic cooperation with China, preferring to cooperate with countries that support Taiwanese independence.

Lai described his running mate Hsiao as a ‘warrior for democracy’. She previously assumed the position of the top Taiwanese representative in the US, a de facto ambassador, given the lack of formal recognition of Taiwan in the U.S. She was also a former dual citizen of the U.S and Taiwan until she gave up her US citizenship in 2002 in line with laws on Taiwanese civil servants and related backlash. Her relationship with the U.S became a source of outrage from China and rival candidates. She backed the increase of military defence capabilities in Taiwan and furthering a relationship with the U.S, which she will likely be instrumental in due to her previous roles and relationships. 

The presidential opponent of the TPP, Ko Wen-je, took a similar but weaker stance on China, aiming to increase dialogue with both the US and China, making Taiwan a bridge between the countries. The KMT- DPP’s primary opponent- took a drastically different approach. Hou Yu-ih and Jaw Shaw-kong from KMT focused on increasing trade with China and focusing on dialogue with China over the U.S. Hou also described Lai and Hsiao as ‘separatists’, mirroring terms used previously by China. Several KMT officials even travelled on official visits to China before the elections, and their loss was a blow to China and its efforts for reunification. 

Experts had anticipated that China would have a significant negative response to the elections in Taiwan, with Danny Russel, a former official in the East Asian and Pacific affairs under Obama, saying China could serve ‘a spanking to the people of Taiwan’. However, as Taiwanese officials predicted, Taiwan was spared an extreme reaction from China, perhaps due to the desire for China to continue the positive bilateral relationship they had built up with the U.S. 

Taiwan was spared an extreme reaction from China, perhaps due to the desire for China to continue the positive bilateral relationship they have built up with the US.

After Lai’s election, the ‘Taiwan Affairs Office’ responded that the polls would not stop the ‘unstoppable trend’ of reunification and that the mainstream public in Taiwan would not be represented under the DPP. There was also a strong Chinese military presence around Taiwan in the days surrounding the elections, even if this paled in comparison to previous responses. However, as Lai Ching-te prepares to assume the presidency in May, Taiwanese and Chinese tensions may continue to escalate. Restrained actions from China now imply a potential increase in aggression in May. As already one of the most significant elections of 2024, the global community will be watching closely as the future direction of cross-strait relations becomes contentious and hostile.