Will Taiwan’s elections cause a major war with China?

Lai Ching-te, the candidate of Taiwan's ruling party, won Taiwan's presidential elections held in January 2024, and China described it as “a choice between war and peace”.

Lai Ching-te, the candidate of Taiwan’s ruling party, won Taiwan’s presidential elections held in January 2024, and China described it as “a choice between war and peace”.  The opposition Kuomintang party’s candidate, Hu Yue, conceded defeat. Under the constitution, former Taiwanese President “Tsai Ing-wen” is not eligible to run again after two terms in office. With this result, the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates Taiwan’s independent identity and rejects China’s claims to sovereignty over it, assumes power for the third consecutive term, which is unprecedented in Taiwan’s electoral system.  Voters in Taiwan chose William Lai Ching-te as their president in a historic election, cementing an increasingly divergent path from China.  The move angered Beijing, which issued a statement shortly after the results came out, insisting that “Taiwan is part of China”. Although Beijing called for “peaceful reunification”, it also did not rule out the use of force, portraying Taiwan’s elections as a choice between “war and peace”. This may explain the significance of China strengthening its military presence around the Taiwanese island in recent months before the start of the Taiwanese presidential elections, which has increased fears of a possible conflict.

  The leaders of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing criticize the tendencies of the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, which is led by “Lai” and supports sovereignty and independence from China, and is the same party that has ruled Taiwan for eight years.  We find that China’s insistence that former Taiwan President “Tsai Ing-wen” confirm the “1992 consensus”, which is an implicit agreement, stipulates that Taiwan is part of China, since she took power 8 years ago.  China wants the Democratic Progressive Party to accept the 1992 consensus, something the party has made clear it will not do.  At a time when the opposition Taiwanese presidential candidate, Hu Yue, was calling for the resumption of communication with Beijing, starting with the exchange of visits, and, like China, he accused his rival of supporting the formal independence of Taiwan. At a time when Lai accuses that his rival in the Taiwanese presidential elections is a supporter of Beijing, but Ho rejects that accusation.

Taiwan announced shortly before the Taiwanese presidential elections that it had detected activity of Chinese aircraft and warships near the Taiwanese island before the official start of the Taiwanese presidential elections. This included the aircraft crossing a line dividing the Taiwan Strait, in continuation of Beijing’s military activities 3 weeks before the presidential elections in Taiwan.  The reasons for these Chinese military movements in the Taiwan Strait are to prevent collusion between Taiwanese separatists who are affiliated with and loyal to the United States of America and those who support the principle of Taiwan’s separation from the motherland in Beijing. Therefore, all of these Chinese military movements aim to protect the integrity of Chinese territory. In addition to the Chinese government’s fear that the Taiwan government, which has repeatedly offered to hold talks with China, will reject Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over it, and its officials’ assertion that only the people of the island can decide their future.  Here, all opinion polls indicate that the leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party opposed to Beijing, Lai Ching-te, is the most likely to win in the upcoming Taiwanese presidential elections. He is the same person whom Beijing denounced as a separatist, but at the same time he is the closest to being the next president of Taiwan. On the other hand, the United States of America, Taiwan’s largest ally, was quick to congratulate Lai on his victory, and Secretary of State “Anthony Blinken” praised the “strong democratic system and electoral process” on the Taiwanese island.  “Anthony Blinken” confirmed in a statement that Washington is “committed to maintaining peace and stability across the Strait”.  He also confirmed that US President Joe Biden told reporters that the United States of America “does not support Taiwan independence”.

 The Taiwanese presidential candidate, Lai, who received 40 percent of the votes, helped him comfortably advance over his counterpart, the candidate, Ho Yu-a, from the main opposition Kuomintang Party in Taiwan.  While receiving a quarter of the votes, Taiwanese dissident politician “Kuo Wen-jie” from the Taiwan People’s Party, a new party on the Taiwanese political scene, but popular among young voters.  Taiwanese voters also chose their legislature, and the Democratic Progressive Party lost its majority as the opposition gained more votes and support, although no party gained enough seats to control parliament. In my view, the presence of an opposition-dominated legislature in Taiwan, with a president from the Democratic Progressive Party, may mean that the process of governing Taiwan will become more difficult. Taking into account that, since 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) have alternated in ruling Taiwan, which is the party friendlier to Beijing compared to the Democratic Progressive Party. In the period leading up to the elections, China repeatedly denounced presidential candidate Lai, even though he is the most prominent and most likely in the political scene in Taiwan. The Beijing government described him as a “dangerous separatist” and rejected his repeated calls to hold talks with it.

 But what most alarmed the central government in Beijing during the Taiwanese presidential elections in January 2024 was Lai Ching-te’s speech before tens of thousands of supporters in the streets of the capital, Taipei, in which Lai described his victory as a “victory for democracy” by literally emphasizing that in Taiwan, “we did it. We did not allow outside forces to influence our elections, because we decided that only we could choose our president”. In the period leading up to the elections, Taiwan accused China of trying to interfere in the electoral process. Despite this, Taiwanese candidate Lai also sent a message to China, during his dialogue with a number of journalists, by stressing that he “prefers more exchanges and dialogue, rather than obstruction and conflict, calling for peace and stability with Beijing”. Beijing described Taiwan’s presidential candidate, Lai, as a “separatist and troublemaker” , because of statements he previously made in support of Taiwanese independence, which China considers a red line.

 After the start of the voting process in the presidential elections, the Ministry of Defense in Taiwan stated that it had again spotted Chinese balloons crossing the Taiwan Strait, and one of them flew over the island of Taiwan itself. The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense denounced the torrent of Chinese war and military balloons that were spotted over the strait a month before the start of the Taiwanese presidential elections in December 2023, describing it as “psychological warfare and a threat to the safety of Taiwanese aviation”.

  But from my point of view, war is still unlikely between China and Taiwan, despite the visit of former US House Speaker “Nancy Pelosi” to Taiwan in August 2022, which escalated tensions to a new level.  Although there have been 4 statements by US President Joe Biden since he assumed the presidency, that he would send American forces to protect the Taiwanese island against China.  But even if a Sino-Taiwan war is unlikely, it is not impossible, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine strongly reflects. There are also serious attempts by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan to prepare for war, by trying to strengthen Taiwan’s relations with the United States of America and other like-minded democracies that support Taiwan’s secession from the motherland on mainland China, including strengthening its relations with non-allies.  Officials such as (Japan and Australia). However, the possibility of these countries providing assistance to Taiwan seems weak from my point of view, due to their inability, along with their main ally in the United States of America, to provide serious military assistance to Taiwan at the time of any war with Beijing.

  Accordingly, China supports the position of the two main Taiwanese opposition parties, the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People’s Party, with the Beijing government’s assertion that Taiwan needs dialogue with China in order to achieve peace, and cannot rely on the United States of America or any other party to save the day.  They also described voting for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, which supports Taiwan’s secession from China, in the presidential elections as a vote for war.

Dr.Nadia Helmy
Dr.Nadia Helmy
Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Politics and Economics / Beni Suef University- Egypt. An Expert in Chinese Politics, Sino-Israeli relationships, and Asian affairs- Visiting Senior Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)/ Lund University, Sweden- Director of the South and East Asia Studies Unit