Taiwanese Presidential Election: A Geopolitical Hot Topic

By Tom Porter

On January 13, voters in Taiwan will choose their next president in an election that will be closely watched by both Washington and Beijing, said Associate Professor Government and Asian Studies Christopher Heurlin, a specialist in Chinese politics.

heurlin headshot
Christopher Heurlin

Naturally, the US and China have their preferred candidates, he added, “but, no matter who wins, the region is sure to remain a geopolitical hotspot and a point of contention within the triangular relationship between Taiwan, China, and the US."

Relations between Taiwan, a democratically run island of 24 million people 1,300 miles off the Chinese coast, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is a central theme of the election.

Although the PRC has never ruled over Taiwan, Beijing refuses to recognize it as a separate nation and continues to lay claim to the territory under its “One China” principle.

While none of the three main Taiwanese presidential candidates favor unification with China, some are more vocally pro-independence than others, said Heurlin.

The favorite candidate (though not by a huge margin) and the most outspoken pro-independence voice, explained Heurlin, is Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). “He is likely to continue in the vein of his termed-out predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, who has stressed Taiwan’s de facto independence and the importance of standing up to Chinese threats.”

Hou Yu-ih represents the Kuomintang (KMT), originally the party of Chinese nationalists who migrated to Taiwan in 1949 when their communist rivals took control of the mainland. “The KMT has, over the longer-term, been the more dominant party in Taiwan and tends to favor stronger economic ties to the mainland while also being more tolerant of Beijing’s ‘One China’ principle,” said Heurlin.

The third hopeful on the presidential ballot is Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). “The TPP is something of a newcomer, established only four years ago, but it’s generally regarded as being closer to the KMT in favoring better ties to the mainland.”

Beijing’s favored candidate, explained Heurlin, is the KMT’s Hou. “This is supported by recent reports of a Chinese-backed online offensive and disinformation campaign seeking to promote the KMT and denigrate the DPP, using TikTok and other social media to portray Lai and his party as being out of touch and incompetent.”

Beijing’s preference for the KMT is nothing new, said Heurlin. “Back in the mid-nineties, when Tawian held its first independent presidential election, China responded with increased military activity in the Taiwan straits in the hope of encouraging voters to support the KMT rather than the DPP.”

That dynamic between Beijing and Taiwan’s KMT is still very much at play today, Heurlin observed, with Beijing currently offering subsidized air tickets to Taiwanese KMT supporters living in China to go back and vote in the upcoming elections.

Furthermore, he added, Chinese military activity near Taiwan has been steadily increasing since the 2022 visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which infuriated Beijing.

The DPP, meanwhile, as the party that is more resistant to pressure from China, is Washington’s favorite. “The US also likes the DPP because Lai’s candidate for vice president, Hsiao Bi-khim, is the former ‘quasi ambassador’ to the US and someone Washington regards as a strong advocate of democratic Western values,” said Heurlin.

“The DPP is historically the most pro-independence of the parties,” he added, “although the party is still less independence-oriented than it was twenty or so years ago, moving away from any talk of a formal declaration and stressing, instead, the status quo.”

A DPP victory was made more likely recently, said Heurlin, by the failure of the KMT and TPP to agree on a joint ticket. “The two parties couldn’t agree on who would be the prime candidate, so they failed to establish a united front.”

While none of the three main Taiwanese presidential candidates favor unification with China, some are more vocally pro-independence than others.

Further afield, the two superpowers keenly watching events have both hardened their stance toward Taiwan in recent years, he added. “Although a big supplier of military aid to Taiwan, the US has traditionally had only an ambiguous commitment to help directly in the event of a Chinese attack. More recently, however, President Biden has repeatedly said that the US would defend Taiwan militarily against Chinese aggression.” For its part, Beijing has also toughened its rhetoric in favor of the “One China” principle, and many observers believe President Xi Jinping is preparing his country to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027—a claim that Beijing denies.

If China is able to gain control of Taiwan, Heurlin warns the territory could go the same way as Hong Kong, which was handed back to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule.

“China originally adopted the ‘one country, two systems’ framework for governing Hong Kong, but that has been dismantled over the years, leaving the territory under much more direct and heavy-handed mainland control right now, with pro-democracy voices being routinely quashed.” This, he explained, is most likely the model that President Xi would adopt should he assume control of Taiwan.