TAIPEI, Taiwan — China’s hopes for political turnover in Taiwan — a government more favorable to Beijing — appear likely to be dashed, with the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party on course to secure an unprecedented third term.
That is raising fears of even more Chinese military aggression around the democratic island, and the prospect of reignited US-China tensions. Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, but Beijing claims it as its territory.
The fate of Taiwan has long been the most volatile issue between Beijing and Washington, and a flare up over the results of voting Jan. 13 could derail efforts to stabilize relations.
In the past, Beijing has ramped up military intimidation toward Taiwan before and after the vote, to signal readiness to use force if Taipei refuses to submit to Chinese Communist Party rule indefinitely.
This time the presidential races come as Chinese military plans and ships have surrounded the island so frequently and in such large numbers over the past 15 months that US officials warn of “miscalculations” spiraling into accidental conflict.
While President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping this month agreed to restore military-to-military communication channels, Taiwan remained a sticking point in talks. Biden underscored the United States’ interests in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
With seven weeks until the election, Beijing is looking increasingly likely to be disappointed. The Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, current vice president Lai Ching-te, is the clear frontrunner, consistently leading in the opinion polls, despite his party’s approval rating having fallen to 27 percent from 41 percent during the 2020 general election.
Lai’s advantage is largely thanks to disarray in the opposition camp. The three candidates challenging his bid, all of whom are friends to Beijing, discussed forming a joint ticket to avoid splitting the vote, but this effort failed as candidate registration closed Friday. Pollsters say this will only increase Lai’s chances of him.
Beijing considers Lai a dangerous “troublemaker” who will move Taiwan toward a formal separation from China, and has twice sanctioned his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, who was Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States until this week.
Hsiao on Thursday called for international support to push Beijing toward resuming dialogue with Taiwan if she and Lai win. “War is not an option,” she said.
In an attempt to ward off Beijing’s anger, Lai has said he has no plans to formalize independence and will maintain the status quo. China appears unmoved.
If the DPP wins, tensions are bound to escalate because Beijing will try to preemptively warn Lai against changes in policy, said Yun Sun, co-director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a think tank.
“China is unlikely to wait for his inaugural speech, or wait for him to act at all, before it dials up its military coercion to deter him, and the US will have to respond in kind,” she said.
Beijing mounted an intense campaign of military and economic coercion to express its displeasure over the policies of Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected Taiwan’s president in 2016 but cannot stand again because of term limits. She will step down in May.
As vice president since 2020, Lai has worked closely with Tsai and, like her, claims Taiwan is already sovereign and it is unnecessary to declare independence.
Lai is expected to mostly continue her policies of building up Taiwan’s defenses and shoring up relationships with the United States and other democratic partners to protect Taiwan’s democratic way of life. He picked Hsiao in an effort to lean into ties with Washington.
Beijing’s pressure tactics appear to have backfired, leaving the opposition parties struggling to convince voters that closer ties with Beijing are a good idea, compounded by long-term shifts in public opinion.
Younger voters increasingly consider themselves distinctly Taiwanese. Unlike their parents, this “born independent” generation has little emotional connection to China, let alone any interest in being part of the People’s Republic. Only 9 percent consider China trustworthy, a survey released this week found, down from 14 percent in 2021.
So far, Lai’s message of continuity, mixed with clear concerns about Chinese influence and aggression, appears to be working. He has consistently polled around or just above 30 percent.
A win is not guaranteed. Public grievances against the ruling party have bubbled up during Tsai’s presidency, which has been hit by corruption scandals and grumbling from Taiwanese businesses about lost trade with China.
Even so, the candidate for the main opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, has struggled to get beyond the mid-20s in the polls.
Hou Yu-ih casts himself as best-placed to talk Beijing down from aggression and rekindle trade across the Taiwan Strait. After first avoiding the issue, Hou adopted a position that Taiwan is part of “one China” even though Taipei and Beijing disagree about what that means, a stance Beijing demands as a condition for talks.
But his message of business-friendly pragmatism hasn’t translated into strong support, in part because of fierce competition from other candidates with similar policies.
Ko Wen-je is chairman of the smaller Taiwan People’s Party, whose anti-establishment appeal has upended the usual two-party dynamics. A straight-talking former surgeon known to his supporters as KP, or Professor Ko, he has enjoyed surprisingly strong appeal among voters fed up with both traditional camps and has been polling around the same level as Hou.
Ko has tried to sidestep the issue of recognizing China’s insistence that Taiwan is its territory, and instead prefers to talk about how the “two sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family.”
He wants China and Taiwan to focus on “historical and cultural similarities and put aside political differences for the time being,” said representative Jennifer Yo-Yi Lee.
Unusually, there is a third player in the effort to unseat the DPP: Terry Gou, the billionaire chairman of iPhone maker Foxconn, who is running as an independent after failing to secure the Kuomintang nomination.
The difficulty of finding a compelling and coherent narrative on China is one reason the opposition has failed to unify.
“It’s infinitely easier for [Lai] to score points on foreign policy,” because his party represents Taiwanese identity and can excite supporters with a clear “tough on China” message, said Wen-Ti Sung, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
The opposition candidates haven’t helped themselves with a series of dramatic U-turns in recent days as they tried — and repeatedly failed — to form a joint ticket.
But the bigger challenge is that the vast majority of Taiwanese are now deeply suspicious of Beijing’s intentions.
The Communist Party’s offer of a “one country, two systems” formula for Taiwan, like that operating in Hong Kong, lost appeal after a sweeping security crackdown in the eleven freewheeling city starting in 2019.
That crystallized concern among Taiwanese that they would face a similar erosion of freedoms if they moved closer to China and helped Tsai win reelection by a landslide in 2020.
More recently, Xi has made clear his willingness to take Taiwan by force if he decides to.
“This election is becoming about who voters think is the safest choice for Taiwan,” said Lev Nachman, a scholar at National Chengchi University, Taipei. “Whether or not people like Lai, they know how they feel about unification with [China]: they don’t want it.”