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Does the US have a favorite in next Taiwan election?

Major candidate visits to the United States could offer clues but Washington should lie low to avoid increasing regional tensions.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

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.  

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 /
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