When asked about whom they support in Taiwanese elections, U.S. officials and experts reply that the United States doesn’t officially support any one candidate or party, an observation that fails to take account of Washington’s tendency to more subtly influence electoral outcomes that it prefers.
A clear example is what happened when Tsai Ing-wen visited Washington during her first presidential campaign in September 2011. A “senior U.S. official” told the Financial Times that the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had left the Obama administration with “distinct doubts” about whether she was willing or able to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait, an assessment that contributed to Taiwanese voters’ support for the more Beijing-friendly policies of the incumbent, President Ma Ying-jeou and his reelection.
Interestingly, Kathrin Hille, the same Financial Times journalist who penned the 2011 article about Tsai’s visit, recently wrote that U.S. officials are now raising similar questions about the DPP’s Lai Ching-te, who uses the name William, the front-runner in the January 2024 Taiwanese presidential election.
In addition to Lai’s past self-identification as a “realistic worker for Taiwan Independence” — an avowal that could well evoke Washington’s not-so-pleasant memory of former President Chen Shui-bian and his explicit challenges to the status quo — this new skepticism was said to stem from Lai’s recent contentious comments regarding his aspiration to enter the White House some day if he were elected president. This is despite the fact that, under the U.S. “One China” policy, which acknowledges (but does not accept) Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, top Taiwanese officials have been effectively barred from entering Washington, lest their presence be construed by Beijing as recognizing the island’s independence.
But the Biden administration may yet have little choice if it wants to sustain the robust U.S.-Taiwan partnership. In addition to his position in the DPP, Lai serves as vice president of the Republic of China under President Tsai, and he has tried to make clear his intention to uphold Tsai’s current diplomatic path. In contrast to his most important campaign rivals — Ko Wen-je of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) — Lai may present himself to Washington as the only credible candidate capable of delivering strong and stable leadership.
Owing to their lack of experience in navigating national and global affairs, the other two may fall short of this expectation. In an apparent attempt to reassure Washington, Lai published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in early July to underscore his commitment to maintaining the status quo.
More important, a nuanced shift in Washington’s stance on its “One China” policy has become apparent in recent years. Taiwan is increasingly framed by U.S. officials (and lawmakers of both parties) as a significant security and strategic partner and asset in the Indo-Pacific region best kept separate from China — a notion that directly challenges the traditional understanding of the “One China” policy, which poses no opposition to peaceful unification.
In light of this, Washington may find itself compelled to offer implicit support for Lai. This inclination could be particularly pronounced, given that his key rivals, Hou and Ko, hold views that are more Beijing-friendly.
Washington’s stance on Lai is soon to be put to a test. Lai is scheduled to transit the United States en route to Paraguay in mid-August. The latest announcement from Taiwan suggests that Lai will stop in New York and San Francisco, and forgo visiting locations in close proximity to Washington D.C., which would have signified strong U.S. backing for Lai’s campaign and a marked departure from the traditional U.S. handling of the Taiwanese vice president.
It now looks as if Lai’s journey in the United States will take a low profile that may appear to reflect persistent U.S. skepticism of Lai’s intentions.
Unburdened by the constraints that come with holding a senior official position like Lai’s, the TPP’s Ko, a former mayor of Taipei, has already visited both the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei, the American Institute in Taiwan, or AIT, and Washington itself in April. At the time, he lagged far behind the other two candidates, according to polling, so his visit to D.C. did not create much of a stir. However, he has since surged in the polls, displacing the KMT’s candidate, Hou, as Lai’s chief rival.
As Ko is planning another trip to the United States in either August or September, such a visit would no doubt draw far more attention and scrutiny, particularly by U.S. officials evaluating his policy agendas and his young party’s capacity to govern.
Ko’s biggest advantage at this point, as noted by U.S. China analyst Bonnie Glaser, is that Beijing would feel more “comfortable” supporting him over the other candidates. He has experience dealing with China as mayor of Taipei whose sister city in China is Shanghai. Although Ko entered Taiwan politics as more of a pro-independence figure, his experience working with the Chinese over the years has aligned him more with the KMT’s strengths in managing cross-strait relations.
Ironically, Hou’s Taiwanese (Benshengren) origin, his ambiguous attitude toward cross-strait issues in his earlier career, as well as his past role as Taiwan’s National Police Agency chief under Chen Shui-bian’s DPP government, have provoked doubts in Beijing about his fidelity to the KMT’s traditional more pro-China position. In order to reassure Beijing and the KMT’s traditional supporters in that regard, Hou announced in early July his acceptance of the “1992 consensus”that is compatible with the ROC Constitution, mirroring the position of the island’s last KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016).
With Ko encroaching on KMT territory, Hou finds himself in an increasingly challenging position in this race. Despite leading in all the major polls at the year’s start, Hou’s numbers have dipped below Ko’s since he received the KMT’s nomination in May. This shift is largely attributable to a split with his KMT challenger, Terry Gou, during the nomination process. Gou has thus far refrained from endorsing Hou’s candidacy and his ongoing visit to the United States serves as evidence that he has not abandoned his campaign.
Given Washington's unfamiliarity with Hou, his planned U.S. visit in August or September holds notable significance. It will offer a crucial opportunity to introduce himself, boost his international profile, and gain more trust from Taiwanese voters on his ability to manage diplomacy.
A crucial choice faced by Washington now is what it means when the State Department declared its determination last month to accord all candidates “fair treatment.” If “fair treatment” implies that Hou and Ko will be prevented from visiting Washington due to the restriction on Lai’s travel resulting from his official position, such a decision could inadvertently favor Lai’s candidacy. This could be perceived, however, as de facto unequal treatment, considering that previous candidates, such as Tsai in 2011, were granted the privilege to visit Washington.
While both the Trump and Biden administrations have provided solid support for the DPP government under Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership, a fact which contributed significantly to her reelection in 2020, it would seem imprudent for Washington to extend its support for DPP in this race whose eventual outcome remains very uncertain.
Given that uncertainty and the growing tensions in the Sino-U.S.-Taiwan triangle, Washington’s wisest course would be to lie low and avoid any show of favor, more so than in past elections.
David Zhong is currently an MA student in Asian studies, now actively pursuing enrollment in a Political Science Ph.D. program, with a specialized focus on Chinese politics, China's foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and Taiwan Affairs.
Vice President Lai Ching-tei, presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), attends an election rally in Taipei, Taiwan, June 18, 2023. Editorial credit: jamesonwu1972 / Shutterstock.com
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.