12.12.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Taiwan: foreign policy aspects of the landscape before the electoral battle

Vice President Lai Ching-te

On 27 November this year, the nomination period expired and the registration process for candidates for the positions of president and vice president, as well as for the 113-seat Taiwanese parliament, took place. This finalised the pool of politicians drawn from the island’s major political parties, all of whom have some chance of fulfilling their ambitions in the upcoming quadrennial general election on 13 January 2024.

Of particular interest, of course, are the candidates for the presidency. They were incumbent Vice President Lai Ching-te from the now-ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Mayor Hou Yu-ih of the Taipei metropolitan area from one of the opposition parties (the Kuomintang), and its leader Ko Wen-je from the other (the Taiwan People’s Party).

In other words, the efforts of the previous few months, mediated by the former (between 2008 and 2016) president of the same Kuomintang, Ma Ying-jeou, to harmonise the efforts of both opposition parties to remove the DPP from power in the upcoming elections have failed (let us specify, completely). Such harmonisation will take place in the parliamentary elections, with each of the opposition parties running for the presidency.

All this dramatically complicates the question of assessing the post-election political landscape in Taiwan. The uncertainty is heightened by the results of recent polls, according to which the incumbent vice president’s approval rating, which had previously been unchallenged ahead of each of the two main contenders individually, has now been equalled (and even slightly surpassed) by the leader of the TPP.

The subjects of the already unfolding controversy between the main presidential contenders are both domestic and foreign policy problems that Taiwan has to deal with. Of the former, the main one stems from the slowdown in the industrial sector of the Taiwanese economy. This is a direct consequence of the difficulties in the global economy as a whole, in which Taiwan’s economy is embedded in an unprecedentedly dense way.

However, the almost universal interest in the course and results of the upcoming elections in Taiwan is mainly due to the foreign policy agenda. According to Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, at its centre is “the question of how to deal with China”.

One can only partially agree with this formulation, because in fact, for decades we have been talking about a much broader problem of Taiwan’s positioning in the international arena in general and the “force field” created by the world’s leading players in particular. Although in this case, Beijing is at the very top of the “hierarchy” made up of them, in fact (and in the categories of Realpolitik) Washington is also present in the Taiwan issue in no less weighty way.

The latter, publicly declaring respect for the “one-China principle”, has long (since 1979, when the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act) and has consistently pursued a policy that has so far almost insurmountably hindered the implementation of the 2005 Chinese law that allows Beijing to solve the problem “in a non-peaceful way”.

Japan’s presence in it looks more and more prominent. The Japanese leadership has been talking about the need to “preserve the status quo in the Taiwan Strait” (which is the main real content of the TRA-1979) lately on all international platforms and on any suitable occasion. Moreover, not only speaks, but also writes it down in its basic documents. For example, in the long-term National Security Strategy adopted at the end of 2022.

However, the involvement of a new “pole” in regional and world politics, such as India, in the games around Taiwan is also visible on the horizon. It manifests itself not only in the form of more frequent publications of some authoritative Indian political scientists, but also through the expansion of Indian-Taiwanese business contacts. And not only in the “private” sphere. Thus, it is reported that a bilateral ministerial-level “Agreement of Understanding” is being prepared to attract the Indian labour force to various sectors of Taiwan’s economy.

Under the pretext of the really urgent (not only for Taiwan, but also, for example, for Japan) problem of attracting labour migrants, Taipei is expanding its contacts with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. That is, with those countries in the Southeast Asian sub-region that have difficult relations with China.

It is important to emphasise that the process of involvement of “external” players (and not so much the US as, for example, Japan) in the island’s affairs is generally viewed quite favourably by the majority of the Taiwanese themselves. This is reliably recorded by various sociological measurements. Mainly because the Taiwanese are quite satisfied with the current “status quo” mentioned above. Namely, they do not need full-fledged state subjectivity in the international arena, but they do not want any interference from the mainland in their affairs either.

At the same time, the Taiwanese are quite satisfied with the current state of relations between the “banks of the Taiwan Strait”. Namely, and above all, the huge scale of bilateral trade, as well as the expansion of other various contacts with the mainland. For example, in the sphere of tourism.

Both domestic political camps in Taiwan, the two camps identified above, have to reckon with such sentiments, and the difference in their actual attitude to the above-mentioned “central” foreign policy issue is rather verbal and polemical in nature. Contrary to popular belief, neither incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen nor current Vice-President Lai Ching-te, who aspires to take her post, have ever (at least publicly) insisted on the island’s de jure statehood. They are comfortable with the island’s de facto autonomy and independence.

Speaking on the occasion of the bank holidays (“Double Ten Day”) on 10 October, Tsai Ing-wen said that, in her opinion, “the only option” for the format of relations with the main country is the state of peace in the Taiwan Strait, as well as the protection of the island’s self-government. Lai Ching-te says roughly the same thing. But this is certainly not Beijing’s “one country-two systems” formula, which, however, is also quite rubber-stamped.

The above-mentioned sentiments of the Taiwanese public actually determine the position of the Kuomintang. This was clearly manifested even during the presidency of the aforementioned Ma Ying-jeou. The latter, while paying lip service to the “one China principle” (fixed in the so-called “Consensus” signed in 1992 by his fellow party members), quite successfully sabotaged the “Mainland” interpretation of this document. That is, let us repeat, in fact (but not publicly, as DPP leaders do) Ma Ying-jeou behaved in accordance with the above-mentioned provisions of Tsai Ing-wen. Under him, by the way, especially large-scale purchases of American weapons were carried out.

Thus, Beijing’s main problem in solving the task of “restoring the unity of the nation” is conditioned by the prevailing moods in Taiwanese society, which are reflected in the real (rather than publicly verbal) positioning of all the main political forces on the island. The factor of the qualitative and quantitative ratio of “aircraft carrier missiles” with the geopolitical opponents opposing it here, of course, is important, but by no means decisive.

Proponents of the viewpoint about the productivity (and the very possibility) of a “forceful” solution to the Taiwan problem mainly proceed from the “experience with Hong Kong”. But this is not a correct analogy for a number of reasons. Let us point out only one of them: the said “force” has to be delivered to the island, which is a very difficult task. Since Washington’s strategy of turning Taiwan into a “porcupine that the lion will not want to attack” has been successfully implemented over the past decades (including, let us repeat, the periods of Kuomintang rule).

In addition, any large-scale hostilities on the territory of the island would surely have a heavy impact on the most attractive “prize” it possesses, namely, its advanced microelectronics (“chip”) industry. The thesis that Taiwan also protects the “silicon shield” is associated with this factor.

In the author’s opinion, we would like to emphasise that in order to solve the above-mentioned task, Beijing does not see any constructive alternative to the prospect of building an attractive image for the Taiwanese on the territory of the mainland itself. As well as patiently forming relations with whatever leadership the Taiwanese people choose on 13 January.

Nevertheless, let us once again draw attention to the fact that the transformation of the situation around Taiwan will be decisively determined by the development of the current stage of the “Big World Game”, which is centred on the system of relations between its main participants. That is, the outcome of the upcoming general elections here will be closely watched in Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi…

This does not mean that what is happening inside Taiwan itself is of secondary importance. But any outcome will affect the form rather than the content of the already actually established relations “between the shores of the Taiwan Strait”. Since, let us repeat, the initial positions of both (outwardly irreconcilable) internal political camps of Taiwan are based on the above-mentioned sentiments of the Taiwanese.

However, it cannot be otherwise within the framework of the real electoral process.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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