Image via Bloomberg Television YouTube screenshot.

Taiwan held presidential and parliamentary elections on January 13 that will determine its political and security future, given escalating threats from Beijing, which continues to insist that the reunification of the island with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains its main historical mission. 

China has positioned the Taiwan election as a choice between war and peace to dissuade Taiwanese voters from giving their votes to William Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DDP), which is considered a pro-Taiwan independent party in the eye of Beijing. 

The US is watching the election closely as Taiwan is its close ally in the Asia Pacific. In response to the highly intense cross-strait relations, Joe Biden’s government has sought to resume, days ahead of the Taiwan elections, both talking with the Chinese government and military to manage the crisis. Just days ahead of the Taiwan election, China agreed to resume military communication with the US.

The election is also being closely monitored by neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea given their own complicated relations with China and dependency on the US for military security. 

The history of relations between the Republic of China (ROC) and the PRC is complex and contains fine nuances, that frequently center around the terms used to describe each — terms that often diverge in Taipei and Beijing. Republican China’s civil war ended in 1949 when supporters of the Kuomintang (KMT) party that fought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fled to the island of Taiwan, which had only recently, in 1945, ended fifty years of Japanese colonial rule. The former KMT declared themselves the new masters of Taiwan as the legal representative of China worldwide, keeping a seat at the United Nations, as one of the founding members in 1945. 

For over two decades, most of the world did not establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, sticking to the ROC government in Taiwan. But things changed dramatically in 1971 after the US decided to switch its primary diplomatic relationship to the PRC, a move that was rapidly adopted by most countries around the world.

This sparked one of the most important disagreements between Taipei and Beijing: the 1971  2758 UN resolution says that the ROC government in Taiwan no longer represents China, which is now legally represented by the PRC, which thus also gets a seat at the UN Security Council. The resolution does not mention anything about the future of Taiwan at the UN and this is where Taipei and Beijing diverge the most: for the PRC, this is interpreted as a ban on any Taiwan representation at the UN, while Taiwan contests this given that the resolution does not include such language. 

This issue is at the heart of the current political debate between the ruling DPP party, which has made the issue of non-recognition of Taiwan the focus point of its policy in the past eight years, and the KMT party that advocates for close economic ties with Beijing as its main policy. One of the dominating debates in Taiwan is the fact that rising living costs and low job prospects make life particularly challenging for younger Taiwanese. This issue has been instrumentalized by a third party, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) led by Ko Wen-ji, thus disrupting the traditional blue (KMT)-green (DPP) two-party only political landscape. 

According to major election polls, while William Lai will most likely be the new president, the DPP will probably lose the legislative majority in the upcoming elections, which implies there will be more space for negotiating policies with China in the legislature as both KMT and TPP are more China-friendly. The Taiwanese choice between war and peace is not that absolute.

Stories about Taiwan: Caught between war and peace

Is Taiwan an unrecognized country?

  9 January 2020

"While today the international community is happy to maintain the current status-quo when dealing separately with Taiwan and China, certain political forces in both places are advocating for a change."