This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By J. Michael Cole, January 15, 2024
Amid unprecedented attention from the international community and rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the people of Taiwan headed to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president and legislature. After months of intense campaigning and intimidation by China, Taiwanese voters elected to give the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a third four-year term – the first time in the island nation’s democratic history that a party has remained in power for more than two consecutive terms.
Despite Beijing’s warning that a vote for the DPP candidate, Lai Ching-te, constituted a vote for “war,” the Taiwanese electorate chose continuity, with Mr. Lai vowing to continue the policies of President Tsai Ing-wen, who successfully navigated a difficult geopolitical environment over the past eight years. (Ms. Tsai will step down on May 20 after reaching her two-term limit.)
Wary of the Taiwan-centric DPP, Beijing has been relentless in its attempts to coerce Taiwan, both militarily and economically, and to isolate it from the international community while using various incentives to foster support for unification with the People’s Republic of China. Those efforts have been largely unsuccessful, and eight years on, Taiwan is arguably much more connected with the international community than it was under more Beijing-friendly governments.
Beijing will no doubt regard the results of Saturday’s elections as a further affront to its nationalistic pride, and we can therefore expect an intensification of its punitive measures at the economic and diplomatic level, as well as an intensification of its already highly destabilizing military activity around Taiwan. In response, the Lai administration will continue to strive to diversify its export destinations to further reduce its economic dependence in China, and, as one of the most vibrant democracies in the region, will remain an important partner to the U.S.-led community of democracies as it pushes back against resurgent authoritarianism. Under Ms. Tsai, Taiwan has played an important role as an example and promoter of liberal democracy, both within the region and abroad. Its government and vibrant civil society have expanded their footprint abroad, often helping other democracies, such as Canada, learn how to better balance their relationship with China so that trade and engagement does not come at the cost of corroded values and institutions.
While many domestic factors also weighed into who the Taiwanese decided to vote for in Saturday’s election, in which the DPP also lost its majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan, their vote for Mr. Lai signalled a desire for Taiwan to continue to play a larger role on the international stage. While potentially reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait for some time, a victory by his two opponents would nevertheless have come at the cost of retrenchment on the international stage and greater focus on Taiwan’s relations with – and concessions to – China.
Still, despite ongoing efforts to modernize its military and develop a defence posture that is better suited to meet the challenge posed by the Chinese military, Taiwan’s ability to deter an invasion by the much more powerful People’s Liberation Army remains contingent on a U.S. commitment to its defence, as well as pressure from other countries making it clear to Beijing that any attempt to annex Taiwan by force and against the wishes of its 23.5 million people would come at an unacceptable cost.
Potential distractions caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine, the risks of a regional conflagration in the Middle East, an unpredictable North Korea and political instability in the U.S. could undermine American efforts to assist Taiwan and therefore embolden Beijing. The DPP’s loss of its majority in parliament could also complicate the new administration’s ability to secure the budgets it needs to fund defence modernization and foreign policy initiatives, which Beijing will no doubt seek to exploit.
There is every reason to believe that a Lai administration will build upon and continue to expand the course set by his predecessor. In the last eight years, Taiwan shone on the international stage, and consolidated its place as both a bastion of liberal-democratic values and an economic powerhouse whose technological prowess in fields such as semiconductors have positioned the country as an indispensable component of the global supply chain. And yet, this success story continues to be threatened by an authoritarian neighbour that rejects the reality that, whoever they vote for, the people of Taiwan categorically refuse to be ruled by Beijing. They cherish the freedom, democracy and way of life they have built over decades of arduous work. And they want their rightful place on the international stage.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa and a senior adviser on countering foreign authoritarian influence with the International Republican Institute. He is also a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.