Taiwanese election may determine whether Beijing opts to force the issue of reunification
If Taiwan’s pro-independence party remains in power, Xi might be compelled to push reunification; however if the opposition, aligning with “one China,” prevails, Beijing may adopt a patient stance.
When the votes are being tallied in Taiwan’s presidential election, it won’t be only the 23.6 million inhabitants of the island eagerly awaiting a result – in Beijing and Washington, too, there will be some anxious faces.
The vote of Jan. 13, 2024, is seen as a litmus test for the future of cross-strait relations, coming at a time when the status quo over Taiwan – a territory Beijing claims as an integral part of “one China” – is being challenged.
If Taiwan’s incumbent, independence-oriented party stays in power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping might feel he has no choice but to force the issue of reunification. Conversely, if the opposition – which agrees with Beijing that Taiwan and the mainland are part of “one China” but not about who governs it – wins, Beijing might feel it has more space to be patient on the issue.
In the run-up to the vote, Beijing has ramped up military exercises in and around the Taiwan Strait in an apparent warning to Taiwanese voters. On Jan. 6, in one of the most recent incidents, China sent a series of balloons over the island, which the Taiwan government cited as a threat to air travel and an attempt at intimidation.
Meanwhile, in his annual New Year’s address, Xi stated that “China will surely be reunified,” raising fears internationally that he intends to pursue the issue militarily if necessary.
For Washington, too, the outcome of the vote will have implications. The United States has cultivated strong ties with the current leadership of Taiwan. But recent tensions in the strait have raised the risk of war. US actions deemed provocative by Beijing, such as the 2022 visit of then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, have resulted in China upping its military threats in the strait. And this has raised speculation that China’s patience is growing thin and its timeline for reunification is growing shorter.
Meanwhile, questions about the US capacity to respond to any Chinese aggression over Taiwan have risen; the spectre of war in a third region of the world – after Ukraine and Israel – worries national security leadership in Washington.
Lai has consistently led in the polls, prompting the KMT and TPP to earlier consider running on a joint ticket. However the two parties failed to agree on terms, and the coalition attempt imploded.
This may prove crucial, as joining forces may have represented the best chance of a KMT candidate being elected – an outcome that may have cooled tensions with Beijing.