The result of these votes organized on Saturday could deepen the crisis between this island nation and communist China. Enough to endanger stability in the region and the global economy.
Taiwanese are preparing for a tense vote. On Saturday, January 13, voters in this country of almost 24 million people will have to nominate their parliamentarians and their president. But their decision could have consequences that reach far beyond the island's shores. Starting with a deterioration in relations with China, which has considered Taiwan an integral part of its territory since 1949.
Beijing actually has a negative opinion of the poll favorite for the presidential election, current Vice President William Lai of the Democratic and Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP has been in power since 2016 and is particularly committed to autonomy and cooperation with the United States. The 64-year-old politician is therefore considered a “serious danger,” according to China, which has increased intimidation attempts against Taiwan in recent years and has repeatedly increased the risk of a military invasion.
Tourists on Kinmen Island, Taiwan's military outpost opposite China, December 5, 2023. (SAM YEH / AFP)
The launch of a rocket carrying a Chinese satellite north of Taiwan caused confusion on the island on Tuesday after a missile alert was sent to all mobile phones on the country's network. On Friday, the Chinese army also announced that it would “smash” any plans for “independence” for the island. The day before, Beijing had officially asked the United States not to interfere in the election.
In this climate of excitement, the Americans, Taiwan's key military allies, are closely watching Saturday's elections and also calling on China to respect their results. An American official therefore announced the sending of an “informal delegation” to the site. Because a conflagration in the Taiwan Strait would pose a serious challenge to Washington and pose a major risk to the global economy.
A campaign focused on China
Three major parties are running for election on Saturday. The Kuomintang (KMT), the oldest, hopes to regain the power it lost in 2016. The DPP wants to keep her for another four years. More recently, the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) has seen a significant increase in poll numbers and is aiming to establish itself as the third political force in the country by gaining more influence in parliament.
“During the campaign, discussions focused particularly on energy, housing and birth rates, issues that are important to Taiwanese,” explains Marc Julienne, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) and a specialist in the region. “But China still remains at the center of the election game and represents the main opposition between the candidate lines,” he recalls. And the political scientist with a doctorate warns: These differences of opinion are “more complex than they seem.”
The main island of Taiwan is just 130 km from neighboring communist China. (FRANCE INFO)
After decades of conflict between supporters of unification with China and supporters of independence, “the traditional political divisions have been eliminated,” emphasizes Marc Julienne. The DPP dropped its proposed declaration of independence “because the party believes that Taiwan has all the hallmarks of an independent state,” he explains. On the other side of the chessboard, the Kuomintang is no longer committed to unification “because that would be electoral suicide in the face of a strengthened Taiwanese identity,” the researcher explains. There is now disagreement in Taiwan about the attitude towards China. Fearing war, should we reopen the channels of discussion and cooperate economically with Beijing, as Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je, candidates of the KMT and TPP respectively, have suggested? Or reject the “false peace” and ignore this neighbor as long as it threatens, as William Lai demands?
Military and energy issues
Against the backdrop of these debates, China's maneuvers are incessant. In recent years, Beijing has conducted numerous maritime patrols as well as simulated invasions and incursions into the island's air identification and defense zone (Adiz), a perimeter that begins 200 km from the coast. A week before the election, four balloons launched by Beijing and about 10 military aircraft were spotted by the Taiwanese army, while local NGOs denounced Chinese disinformation campaigns via text message and social media, France 24 reports.
When it comes to defense issues, the various parties more or less agree on many points, such as extending compulsory military service to 12 months or even strengthening the army's effectiveness. A key issue for Taiwan, which has twelve times fewer troops than Beijing, reminds Time Magazine. Where the candidates face off is on the issue of energy autonomy, while the island still relies heavily on outsiders for gas and oil self-sufficiency. Combined with an aging network, this dependence reveals “a significant weakness in Taiwan’s defenses,” explains researcher Anthony Ho-fai Li in a note for the University of Nottingham.
A Taiwanese Marine monitors a Chinese warship off the coast of Taiwan, August 19, 2023. (TAIWAN MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEFENSE / AFP)
If the parties have the “same goal” of achieving everything renewable, “their instruments are different,” he reminds. The use of nuclear energy particularly divides the DPP, which supports a complete phase-out by 2025, and the opposition parties, which want to restart all or part of the country's four power plants. “Nuclear power is a question of energy sovereignty, but also of national security,” explains Marc Julienne.
“In scenarios of a Chinese blockade or even an invasion, Taiwan’s very low energy autonomy is an important issue.”
Marc Julienne, China specialist
The United States has leaned heavily on Taiwan's side in recent years, continuing its policy of “strategic ambiguity” begun in the early 1980s. Obviously, Washington does not support the idea of formal independence for Taiwan, but has always warned that the country would not tolerate violent reunification. American President Joe Biden also reiterated this to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at their meeting in mid-November.
An increasingly tense situation
But with each camp saying it wants to avoid war, tensions around Taiwan have only increased as the election approaches. In fact, the US caused astonishment when it announced direct military aid to Taiwan at the end of August 2023 – a first in relations between the two countries. “American aid and military sales (…) harm the security and well-being of Taiwanese compatriots,” the Chinese Defense Ministry then denounced.
Chinese and American Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden during a meeting in California (USA), November 15, 2023. (XIE HUANCHI / XINHUA / AFP)
Most recently, the Chinese president's recent statements caused concern in the White House. In his wishes for 2024, Xi Jinping assured that “China will inevitably be reunified” and that “all Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” must pursue a common goal: “the glory of the Chinese nation.”
In the face of Beijing's plans, the United States has not changed its stated wish: “Reject any change to the status quo by any party,” as the head of American diplomacy, Antony Blinken, declared last June.
“Disputes between Taiwan and China were frequent but lasted only a few weeks or months. Since 2020, the crisis has become permanent.”
Marc Julienne, China specialist
It must be said that Washington, like the rest of the world, has every interest in preventing a conflagration around Taiwan. “Japan, South Korea and the Philippines do not hide their concerns, nor does the European Union,” explains the researcher, evoking a conflict whose impact would be more far-reaching than the war in Ukraine or that between Israel and Hamas.
The fear of a new conflict
“Everyone is connected to Taiwan,” emphasizes Marc Julienne. The Strait is an extremely important international trade route, the slightest incident or even accident in this region of the world will have very serious consequences.” Taiwan is the main manufacturer of mid- and high-end semiconductors and also supplies many important industries such as automotive and IT sector. The country is aware of the importance of its know-how, which it uses as a shield and to continue to exist in the eyes of the world.
“Everyone involved is watching these elections closely because the risk of escalation is very high.”
Marc Julienne, China specialist
“It is an economic crisis, but above all a possible war with several nations involved or even a world war,” the researcher continued.
In recent months, more and more people on the island have turned to weapons training before going to the polls, as Australian broadcaster ABC News observed. A symptom, among other things, of the ever-increasing fear in the region.