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Could Taiwan election make US-China relations worse?

Could Taiwan election make US-China relations worse?

Lai Ching-te has won a decisive victory, but 'staying the course' may mean all sides will have to work harder to keep the peace

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

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.

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)

Analysis | Asia-Pacific
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