Only A DPP Win Will Free Taiwan From Its Forever China Trap – Analysis

Taiwan’s presidential election on 13 January remains a pivotal crossroads for both the Taiwanese people and regional fate of stability, peace and democracy. Amidst the backdrop of the systemic attack on freedom and democracy from Ukraine to Hong Kong, the stakes in the elections in Taiwan have not been higher.

The outcome could either strengthen the arc of democracy and create ripple effects to renewed regional confidence or further worsen the risks of unchecked aggressions and miscalculations.

This race creates the moment of truth in determining Taiwan’s foreign policy, its national security and future ties with China and the US. The stakes involved are not on Taiwan’s future and freedom to choose its own direction and in respecting the voices of its people alone, the stakes are the future of global security and the region’s resolve in securing the rules based order and democracy itself.

Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) William Lai Ching-te remains the frontrunner and huge favourite, alongside his running mate, former Taiwan’s de factor ambassador the US Hsiao Bi-khim on the DPP ticket, although the overwhelming focus on the China fear factor has been seized upon by the opposition.

Their main opponents from the Kuomintang (KMT) party, Hou Yu-ih and Jaw Shaw-kong have gained momentum in recent weeks in capitalising on this portrayal of DPP’s complacency and growing ignorance and arrogance and the dangerous moves to risk the ire of Beijing in risking Taiwan’s status quo.

This has been upping the ante and pressure, given how efforts to team up with Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) fell apart. Former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and his running mate, Wu Hsin-ying represent the TPP, who have been fighting a relatively respectable race in this run up.

This election is dominated by the prospect of war, where each contender has argued that they alone can mitigate and prevent, and accusing the others of risking Taiwan’s security prospects by their policies on China and the US.

Under outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, she continued the mantra of Taiwan’s self governance and democratic ideals of respecting the will of the Taiwanese people in determining the future of Taiwan, which are reflected in her expansion of Taiwan’s international presence and defense capabilities ,despite Beijing’s best efforts to isolate her regime and legitimacy.

For the DPP, the best strategy espoused is to talk firmly and to preserve status quo but with a capable and ready stick being always carried around to present credible and direct deterrence. For the KMT, dialogue and diplomacy and a policy of long term non confrontational approach and appeasement alignment remain the projected mantra to avoid Beijing’s ire. Both thought that one’s own approach remains the most reliable. History has proven and the future stakes will need the approach of the former to prevent direct aggression and to preserve all the cards in conflict management.

DPP’s William Lai has reiterated his position on Taiwan’s ties with China, stating that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign nation, but will not seek confrontation with China. The future of Taiwan must be dictated through democratic platforms where only the people of Taiwan will have the full rights to decide, and not through Beijing’s decision alone.

For KMT’s Hou Yu-ih, he supports the 1992 consensus and seeks to have closer economic ties with China.

TPP’s Ko Wen-je has branded DPP to be pro-war and KMT to be too deferential to China, and has sought to strike the right balance and to have closer ties with Beijing.

All three candidates have acknowledged the potential conflict risks for Taiwan and publicly voiced support for raising the defense budget, but to see that through with conviction and without the eventual ire and pressure from Beijing will be the key.  

The KMT’s main narrative is that war can only be prevented with the notion of accepting that Taiwan is not a separate entity from China. Tensions can also be mitigated through closer economic relations, at least according to KMT elites.  

The KMT backs the 1992 Consensus and its “One China” notion. The DPP rejected it. While KMT has argued that the “1992 Consensus” is the key to defusing tension with Beijing, the majority worry that by endorsing this consensus, it will risk undermining Taiwan’s status as a separate political entity and opens the door for a political union with China.

KMT has revived its flagging influence with majority wins in local councils and mayoralties across Taiwan in the local polls in 2022. Tsai’s government has been fending off not only Chinese military incursions and sabre rattling tactics, but also heavy-handed election meddling and disinformation.

The Chinese state and affiliated entities represent a solid force of amplifying anti-US content, as stated by Chih hao Yu, co-director of the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG) in citing an analysis of two years of news reports from mainstream media in Taiwan.

William Lai has pointed out the unprecedented scale of Beijing’s interference for this election, stating that this is the most serious meddling the island has ever seen ranging from ingrained propaganda to cognitive warfare and fake news alongside sustained military intimidation.

This is also reflected in the case of Ma Chih-wei, an independent candidate in parliamentary elections who was detained on charges of allegedly taking CCP financing for her campaign.

Previously, counter-influence efforts by Taiwan have focused on local Chinese governments hosting Taiwanese officials at the grassroots level on all-expenses paid visits. As reported, dozens of Taiwanese village chiefs were investigated for such trips during previous elections. Other ongoing practices include subsidised religious tours of Chinese temples, support for triad groups and indigenous communities and pressure on Taiwanese businesspeople in China and information warfare campaigns, these as according to Taiwanese government officials and analysts.

The defence ministry has begun disclosing the activity of Chinese military balloons in its daily updates, and last weekend denounced such flights as part of attempts at cognitive warfare to affect the morale of the Taiwanese people.

According to Bloomberg Economics modelling, a Chinese invasion will cost the global economy more than USD10 trillion, more than the Ukraine war and the Covid pandemic. It will also decimate the Taiwan economy and shrink Beijing’s economy by 16.7% and the US by 6.7% in the first year.

Xi has made it clear that Taiwan will eventually be reunited with China by all means in his New Year address. Xi’s fast closing time frame in seeing this through under his watch will mean that DPP’s win will almost certainly open new risks of force as the final option for Beijing. This has been used as the pressing factor for KMT to drill the point of the importance of the non-confrontational approach.

China has often been proposing to Taiwan that if the island accepts the 1992 consensus,an unofficial understanding reached between the two sides that there is one “China,” but the two disagree about what “China” means, then cross-strait tensions will reduce. The KMT seems to be aligned to this approach.

However, any significant shift in Taiwan’s approach with China with the potential of an upset win by KMT will set back Taiwan’s leverage with China for at least a decade, and it will give Beijing the ultimate prize of Taiwan reunification against the will of the Taiwanese people.

A KMT rule will hasten the security dilemma facing Taiwan, at a time when many have been wary of Washington’s readiness and intent of defending Taiwan now worsened by the stretch of a two-pronged conflict in Europe and Middle East and a resurgent Pyongyang.

The Afghanistan withdrawal has cast further doubt on Washington’s support for allies, with wariness on the readiness to fully commit to a deterrence effort for Taiwan especially with the prospect of a changing presidency in the US after 2024.

Some have accused Washington of “weaponising” Taiwan in its quest to contain Beijing’s expansionism and are wary of Washington’s seriousness in defending the island.

Others have foreseen the inevitable fact that even if the battle is won against a Chinese forceful invasion, it would be a pyrrhic victory and Taiwan would remain as scorched earth.

This however, depends on the efficacy and limits of Taiwan’s playbook and leverage. Its porcupine strategy, the unsinkable aircraft carrier tag, regional neighbour extended deterrence with Seoul and Tokyo, the prospect of a nuclear armed Taiwan and a total Washington deterrence will negate and prevent such risks.

Any of these will not be possible under KMT rule, however,and the space to leverage on these direct capacities will likely diminish.The reality remains the overwhelming population especially the young are not buying the argument, especially since what happened to Hong Kong since 2019.

A just-released survey by Academia Sinica stated that only 9.3% of respondents agreed that China is a trustworthy country, while 55.3% disagreed. Perceptions of China’s trustworthiness fell from 13.5% in a 2021 survey.

A recent poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that among Taiwanese adults, 61% agreed with the statement that “Even if the U.S. contains China out of its own interest, it is necessary for Taiwan.”Only 22% thought U.S. containment of China was not in Taiwan’s interest.

The world’s most massive and speedy military build-up since the world wars has been geared with the primary goal in mind, ending the Century of Humiliation and finally reasserting Taiwan back to its control and identity.

KMT politicians have cast doubt on Tsai’s plan to strengthen national security that involves extending conscription, adopting asymmetric warfare doctrine, developing Taiwan’s own submarine fleet and diversifying the economy away from China.

To KMT, the best bet to avert conflict is to reduce tensions with Beijing, including the pledge to shorten the length of national service and to review the submarine project.

From blocking the DPP government’s attempt to import American submarines in the 2000s to the backing of the restarting of talks with China on the highly controversial trade deal which would liberalize service trade between the two economies, KMT has chosen a completely opposite path in dealing with China.

For Taiwan’s future and for democracy and freedom to thrive, the DPP must win. If KMT secures an upset win, deterrence of Taiwan will dwindle, which will create ripple effects on other defensive and preventive mechanisms. Aukus and Quad’s overall efficacy ill dwindle, and China will use it as a moral win.This will set back Taiwan’s real resilience of democracy for another 10 years.

If KMT wins, the prospect of a nuclearized Taiwan or the enhancement of its submarine project will effectively cease.

Any potential benefits in terms of closer economic and cultural ties under KMT will be offset by the critical status of Taiwan’s real bulwark of democracy and freedom and the importance of its semiconductor and high technology domain.

Potential softening of Taiwan’s stance and a renewed approach by KMT will invite opportunities for Beijing to pounce on this.As Xi faces the trap of time in its legacy building and that Taiwan reunification remains the ultimate aim, Taiwan’s internal demographic reality further entraps Beijing’s options and Xi’s dwindling options.

Older demographic segments that have predominantly supported the KMT continue to face the bigger and long term rise of the younger demographics that have traditionally favoured the DPP and identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. This new reality setting will worsen prospects for Beijing and for pro China segments.

A victory for KMT, especially when adding the prospect of a Biden loss in the elections later this year, might mean a more dangerous setting for Taipei in which deterrent capacity and pledges will dwindle, especially when Taiwan has been under growing pressure to increase its self defence capacity and GDP spending percentage for its defence.

The DPP will need to project a new dimension to tackle the new efforts by Beijing to exert influence and change the course in domestic politics. Having learned its lesson in the 2022 local elections, it can no longer play the democracy, security and Taiwan identity card at the expense of a credible long term economic resilience plan away from China centric economic dependence. The KMT has been promising both a secure economic and political future for Taiwan, and lacking a deeper narrative to project a two-pronged assurance in the economic and security future of Taiwan that is not at the expense of one or the other, the DPP might face a resurgent KMT and a potential upset win.

Youth nationalist sentiments and the unwavering stance for a future that is free from Beijing dictate remain robust, but are fast succumbing to Beijing’s persistent and sustained strategic efforts to break this hardline link. New narratives and tailor made approaches have been targeted on Gen Z and Gen Alpha, seen as the new segments that can be moulded to break the link with the DPP.

As much as the DPP is projected to win in a close election, Beijing still has the upper hand in using this victory as a pretext to increase aggression and use that as a justification that peaceful reunification is a lost cause, further portraying the DPP as the cause of increasing tensions.

A KMT victory does not naturally mean a direct peace is on the horizon, as other measures, especially direct approaches with the KMT regime might be sought in bypassing the will of the Taiwanese people in deciding their future.

As much as others would have hoped for Beijing to learn its lesson of the past where increased intimidations and pressure on Taiwan electorate and on Taiwan’s military ahead of the elections only badly backfired on China where these actions further proved the vulnerability of Taiwan and further increased support for DPP, this present sustained pressuring campaign against the people and military apparatus means Beijing is still trapped in the limited diversity and efficacy of its strategic options on Taiwan.

Peace is won through strength, and Trump’s peace through strength approach has produced relatively stable global relations in his four years with a direct showcase of power and strength, and strategic combination of tailor made policy moulding. Any efforts to appease or to project from a position of compromise and submission will weaken the foundation of one’s resolve in protecting long term sovereignty and independence.

The Taiwanese people depend on the will of the leaders to give them the right to choose the future of Taiwan, and will not surrender this right at the mercy of others. Democracy, decency in policy approach and freedom are on the line in this election. 

For what it is worth and for all the sacrifices and costs involved, Taiwan’s freedom and democracy are not confined to the boundary of its island alone. It remains the bastion of the global first line of defence in the new realm of might is right mantra.

Taipei’s harbinger of democracy is as much critical and impactful as the fight for freedom in Ukraine, and aftermath of the outcome reverberates far and wide from Jakarta to Buenos Aires. For this reason alone, democracy cannot be left to die in darkness.