Taiwanese voters elected Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as their next president on Saturday, which will be the third consecutive presidential win for the party and an indication voters want to stay the course — in policy and in current US-China-Taiwan relations.
Whether it will result in heightened tensions between the island and mainland China, and Beijing and Washington, remains to be seen, and will likely be determined by the public actions and reactions by each party in the immediate days and weeks.
Despite a late tightening of the presidential race between Lai and his main opponent, Hou You-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), the candidate of the incumbent party prevailed with 40% of the vote in a three-way race that included Ko Wen-je of the Taiwanese People’s Party.
The failure of the two main opposition parties to unite on a joint ticket last fall paved the way for Lai’s victory. While opposition campaign rhetoric painted a win for Lai as a vote for confrontation and conflict with China, enough Taiwanese voters opted to stick with the policies of outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen to give the DPP the unprecedented third term in office.
Lai campaigned on a message of continuity with Tsai. In a popular campaign ad, Tsai and Lai were seen driving in a car together and then the outgoing president got out and let Lai get behind the wheel, saying to him, “You can drive better than me.” Despite Tsai’s somewhat low overall approval ratings, the appeal to staying on the same course was effective enough to secure Lai the win.
Lai’s victory is unlikely to trigger a major crisis right away, but it will ensure that cross-Strait dialogue will not resume. The lack of dialogue between Taiwan and China has coincided with and contributed to a period of increasing Chinese pressure and deteriorating relations between the United States and China.
As a result, the tensions that have built up between Taiwan and China and between the U.S. and China over the last eight years will remain high for the foreseeable future.
The Biden administration was already adding to those tensions last week with the announcement that it would be sending a delegation of former high-level officials to Taiwan after Saturday’s election. This move was unwelcome to Beijing, and the Chinese government condemned the decision, saying that the administration should “stop sending wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence separatist forces and refrain from interfering in elections in the Taiwan region in any form.”
For their part, the Chinese government had been putting additional pressure on Taiwan in the weeks leading up to the election with threats of punitive trade measures.
The DPP triumph is not in itself a prelude to war, but it could encourage hardliners in Washington to pursue more aggressive and provocative policies toward China while making the Chinese use of coercive tactics more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine said in response to the election result, Lai’s victory “will likely worsen the negative dynamics” in the U.S.-China relationship that he and his colleague James Park discussed in their recent QI brief.
Depending on how Lai manages relations with the U.S. in the coming years, there is a danger that his efforts to strengthen ties with Washington will cause a backlash from China that brings all parties closer to a new crisis.
Lai has expressed a desire to see a Taiwanese president visit the White House sometime in the future. If Lai were to pursue such a visit, and if the Biden administration indulged him in this, that would almost certainly be met with significant Chinese punitive measures, whether in the form of economic warfare, military drills, or some combination of the two. More modest efforts to build up the relationship with the U.S. may not have such dramatic consequences, but they will contribute to the ongoing strains in U.S.-Chinese relations.
The old status quo between the U.S. and China has been steadily eroding for at least the last eight years, and this has accelerated over the last three years under Biden. The bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of containment and rivalry and ill-conceived gestures of “support” for Taiwan have fed a cycle of threat inflation and overreaction in both countries. Officials in both governments tend to assume the worst about the intentions of the other side, and there are few safeguards in place in the event of a crisis.
Cross-Strait relations and relations between the U.S. and China have both suffered significantly since then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in 2022. Following that and the spy balloon incident, it took almost all of last year for the Biden administration to stabilize the relationship between Washington and Beijing.
That has left Taiwan measurably worse off under the “new normal” conditions that have been created. It has also undermined the peace in East Asia that has endured for more than 40 years. It is against this backdrop of growing mutual mistrust and hostility that we need to view the implications of the Taiwanese election results. The U.S. can expect and should prepare for at least four more years of heightened tensions and worsening relations with China.
That is why it is imperative that the U.S. approach become much more cautious and responsible than it has been in a long time. The U.S. not only needs to avoid taking provocative actions like extending an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan or restoring normal diplomatic ties, but it must also seek to offer credible assurances to Beijing that it has no interest in encouraging what the Chinese government considers separatism.
Reassurance is as important as, and possibly more important than, making deterrent threats. As Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss, and Thomas Christensen recently explained in their article in Foreign Affairs, “For effective deterrence, both threats and assurances must be credible.” The U.S. has no trouble in convincing other states that it is prepared to use force. The difficulty is in getting other states to believe that the U.S. can be trusted to leave well enough alone.
The U.S. should take care in the coming months not to make any moves that suggest that it is upgrading the relationship with Taiwan. The post-election delegation that Biden is sending should be the last one of its kind for a long time. The Chinese government already perceives a gap between the Biden administration’s rhetoric and its actions, so it is crucial that this gap not get any wider than it already is.
The administration also needs to communicate privately to the incoming president that he should not take any actions that are likely to antagonize Beijing. Given the political incentives in an election year to engage in gratuitous China-bashing, that may be a tall order, but it is what needs to happen if the U.S. and Taiwan are going to navigate the year ahead without serious incident.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
Lai Ching-te is waving on stage after being elected the next president of Taiwan during a rally for the Democratic Progressive Party in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on January 13, 2024. (Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto)
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%.