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Taiwan's election was a vote for continuity, but adds uncertainty in ties with China

Taiwan's President-elect Lai Ching-te attends a press conference outside the headquarters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taipei on Saturday.
Alastair Pike
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AFP via Getty Images
Taiwan's President-elect Lai Ching-te attends a press conference outside the headquarters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taipei on Saturday.

The election on Saturday of Taiwan's vice president and candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Lai Ching-te, to be the island's next leader highlights Taiwanese voters' support for political continuity, but may add fresh uncertainty into already frosty relations with China.

Beijing considers the self-governed island a part of China, and hopes to "reunify" it with the mainland eventually.

Lai, also known as William Lai, previously called himself a "practical worker for Taiwan independence," but had moderated his messaging on the campaign trail and pledged support for the status quo. Beijing, however, painted the election in stark terms, calling him a "separatist" and "troublemaker." Lai's vice president-elect, Hsiao Bi-khim, is on Beijing's sanctions list.

With Lai's win, tensions seem poised to rise. But analysts don't think Beijing wants to provoke a war at this point, and will carefully process early signals from the newly elected Lai.

"I think we're in a wait-and-see [mode]," said Margaret Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University, who was in Taiwan to watch the process.

Shortly after Lai's victory speech on Saturday night, the Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Office issued a statement. "Our stance on resolving the Taiwan question and realizing national reunification remains consistent, and our determination is as firm as rock," it said.

And on Sunday, Beijing criticized U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for congratulating Lai on his victory, saying the U.S. statement "sends a gravely wrong signal to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces" and goes against Washington's commitment to maintaining only unofficial ties with Taiwan.

Lai took 40% of the vote, with others in the three-way competition snagging significant percentages and Lai's party losing control of parliament.

Still, Lewis noted that on China policy, the amount of daylight between Lai and his main rival, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang Party (KMT), was limited, highlighting where public opinion in Taiwan stands.

"It's not like this was a stark black or white choice between two sharply divergent views of how to handle cross-strait affairs," she said, referring to the Taiwan Strait that geographically separates the island from mainland China. Lai favors less reliance on China, while Hou and the KMT want more engagement.

According to the official tally, Lai's more than 5 million votes fell short of the over 8 million that his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, won in the island's last elections in 2020.

The KMT garnered more than 3.9 million votes while the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) took about 3.1 million. In parliament, the KMT snagged 52 seats, while Lai's DPP only took 51 and the TPP grabbed 8.

Analysts say that outcome will likely constrain Lai's ability to govern.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Oct. 16, 2022 in Beijing, China. China has vowed to control Taiwan one day.
Lintao Zhang / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Oct. 16, 2022 in Beijing, China. China has vowed to control Taiwan one day.

The election puts Beijing in a tough spot. So what next?

When the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, China's ruling Communist Party severed formal dialogue and has since significantly ramped up military saber rattling around the island.

Beijing had hoped to avert a Lai victory through a pressure campaign that labeled him a dangerous advocate of Taiwan independence — a red line for China. It had also called the election a choice between war and peace.

Now, it must deal with the outcome, at a time when it may not be in the mainland's interests to have an armed conflict, according to Zhao Minghao, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

China has "very significant economic challenges and I don't think that they are ready [to use] any military options to resolve this issue," he said.

But he added: "If Beijing does nothing, it's unacceptable domestically, because the Taiwan issue is so important ... in terms of China's politics. And Chinese people, they would expect the government to do something to show that we are firm, very confident in managing the situation."

In his acceptance speech, Lai seemed to signal his intention to continue the status quo, saying that he would act "in accordance with the constitutional order of the Republic of China," referring to Taiwan's official name. He also pledged to use dialogue, not confrontation. But he emphasized the principle of "dignity and parity."

Supporters of Lai Ching-te react after Lai won the presidential election outside the party's headquarters in Taipei on Saturday.
Alastair Pike / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Lai Ching-te react after Lai won the presidential election outside the party's headquarters in Taipei on Saturday.

Where things go next is up in the air

The big concern — and a reason why the continuity vote is a problem for Beijing — is that the number of people in Taiwan who identify as Chinese is shrinking, according to multiple polls in recent years. Fewer voters in Taiwan view China as trustworthy.

At the same time, Zhao said, many in China worry that U.S. policy toward Taiwan is shifting, and the chances of "reunification" by peaceful means are further waning as a result.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said "reunification" is inevitable, and that the problem cannot be passed from generation to generation.

Lai's election represents a rebuke, of sorts. It's an unprecedented third consecutive term for the DPP, which got its start in the 1980s by activists and lawyers seeking formal independence for Taiwan. The party now stands for a distinct Taiwan identity.

What's next is anybody's guess.

Beijing seems likely to continue to shun exchanges with the DPP-led government of Taiwan, according to Gabriel Wildau, an analyst at the consultancy Teneo.

"Still, by signaling the durability of the DPP's hold on the electorate, the election outcome may force mainland leaders to reconsider their policy of complete freezeout," Wildau wrote in a note. He said that may lead to "lower-profile exchanges" between the two sides.

Alternatively, things could go the opposite way, according to Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

"Beijing could intensify its cocktail of political, military, and economic leverage against the Lai administration while courting the opposition, which will further complicate Taiwanese domestic politics and intensify tensions between Beijing and Taipei, but also destabilize the Indo-Pacific security environment," he wrote.

President Biden greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023.

The U.S. also plays a role in cross-strait dynamics

The election comes against a backdrop of friction between China and the United States, although both have been trying to lower tensions in recent months.

The Biden administration is sending a delegation of former officials to Taiwan following the election, in a move that a senior administration official earlier this past week said was standard. At the same time, the administration also pledged to maintain dialogue with Beijing.

But where U.S. policy on Taiwan heads after the U.S. presidential election in November remains a question mark. Some members of former President Donald Trump's administration, including his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have voiced support for non-traditional positions, like offering Taiwan formal diplomatic recognition, which could trigger a crisis.

Copyright 2024 NPR

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.

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