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Dispatch from Taiwan: What to Know About Taiwan’s Presidential Election

January 05, 2024
James Lee

Talking Policy Podcast

Taiwanese voters go to the polls on January 13 to elect their next president. The election will determine the next phase of Taiwan’s foreign policy. Both Beijing and Washington will be watching closely. 

In his fourth Dispatch from Taiwan, James Lee, IGCC affiliate and assistant research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica in Taipei, shares insights into the election and results from a recent survey of Taiwanese citizens. This interview was recorded on November 16, 2023, and December 6, 2023. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Can you remind us why Taiwan matters so much in geopolitics? 

Taiwan is in the middle of the first island chain right between Japan and the Philippines. U.S. strategists have warned that if Beijing takes control of Taiwan, its ability to project power into the western Pacific will be enhanced greatly, and it will be able to threaten U.S. allies in the region much more directly. That is the geographic aspect of Taiwan’s strategic importance. 

Another aspect is related to U.S. alliances in general. The United States’ support for Taiwan has been long-standing, going back to the early years of the Cold War. Therefore, there is a fear that if the United States doesn’t stand up for Taiwan, it will undermine the United States’ reputation and credibility around the region. 

Effectively, this means that there would be a decisive shift in the balance of power between Washington and Beijing if the United States doesn’t intervene in Taiwan’s defense. More recently, there has been an argument focusing on the geoeconomic importance of Taiwan. Ninety-two percent of the world’s most advanced semiconductors are manufactured by one Taiwanese company called Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company [TSMC]. 

This concern about the security of Taiwan is unfolding while the United States and China are engaged in a much broader geoeconomic competition over strategic emerging technologies, such as high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, and next-generation telecommunications. Given that most of the world’s advanced chips are manufactured in Taiwan, if China is able to gain control of this critical manufacturing hub, it could mark a decisive shift in favor of Beijing and the geoeconomic competition. 

What have tensions ratcheted up over Taiwan?

What we’re seeing right now is a consequence of decisions that were made and not made in the early years of the Cold War. The dispute over Taiwan is a legacy of the lack of a conclusive resolution to the Chinese Civil War, when the former government of China, the Republic of China, retreated to Taiwan and came under U.S. protection, while the People’s Republic of China was established in the Chinese mainland. The relationship between Taiwan and mainland China has never been decided conclusively. The United States, for most of the Cold War, recognized the government in Taiwan, the Republic of China, as the official government of China. 

In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon started the process of shifting recognition from Taipei to Beijing, which was achieved in 1979. The future of Taiwan became a major source of contention between Washington and Beijing in this process. The bargain they reached was centered on three key terms: peaceful, unofficial, and status quo. 

The United States affirmed its interest in a peaceful approach to cross-strait differences and threatened to intervene with its own military forces if Beijing attacked Taiwan. On the other hand, the United States offered Beijing assurances that its relations with Taiwan would be unofficial, economic, and cultural, without formal diplomatic recognition. The United States has generally maintained that it would oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo. 

These three terms became the core of the bargain. It seemed to be a stable bargain, however, the two sides never agreed on what these terms meant. What we’ve seen in recent years is Beijing, becoming much more powerful and accelerating its military modernization, has been much more capable of challenging the United States’ position on Taiwan, and the United States has been pushing back. The fact that they never reached a bargain on the meaning of these three terms is what is causing the bargain to unravel, and that’s why there’s a great deal of heightened concern about the risk of a conflict over Taiwan in the next few years. 

What is at stake with the January 13th Taiwan presidential election, not only for Taiwan but for the U.S. for China? 

In the last two presidential elections in Taiwan, the voters have chosen a party that historically has been more skeptical of China and less willing to accept the position that Taiwan and China are part of the same country. Because of that, China has been ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan and entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone [AIDIS] on an almost daily basis. 

There is concern that if this continues, Beijing might decide that Taiwan will never want to be part of China and that it might resort to military force in order to resolve the dispute in its favor. That’s not necessarily going to happen, but that is a concern that some people have. 

Up until 2016, Taiwan’s government under the current opposition party pursued engagement with Beijing in a way that made many voters in Taiwan uncomfortable. There was a fear that economic cooperation was leading gradually toward political integration and that Taiwan’s sovereignty and its autonomy were being undermined. 

The debate in Taiwanese politics is about whether there’s a greater risk of Taiwan being absorbed into China through increased cooperation and engagement, or of Taiwan moving toward a confrontation with Beijing by drifting too close to the United States. That is what is at stake in the next election. 

In other words, the election could have big implications for the overall posture Taiwan takes towards the U.S. and China. Is that what you’re saying? 

That’s what the concern is, but right now all the parties are trying to reassure voters that they’re not going to take drastic action. They’re all converging toward the center of the political spectrum. But at the extreme ends, those are the concerns that people have. 

Who are the candidates and what positions do they take on U.S.-China relations? 

The current ruling party’s candidate is William Lai. His Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] traditionally has favored a more distant relationship with Beijing and doesn’t accept the idea that Taiwan is part of China. When William Lai was a premier, he made some comments about being a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan’s independence,” and that set off alarm bells in Beijing and Washington about whether Lai would pursue independence if elected president. Lai, trying to address concerns from U.S. audiences and the electorate in Taiwan, has said that he won’t change the status quo, that he doesn’t support a declaration of independence, and that his stance is that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign country called the Republic of China, Taiwan. There you see him trying to present his platform as being much closer to the center of the political spectrum in Taiwan. 

The main opposition party is the Kuomintang [KMT], the party of Chiang Kai-shek. They have historically adopted a position of being closer to China. They maintain a platform based on the 1992 Consensus, which is the position that Taiwan and China are part of the same country, but they don’t accept Beijing as the government of China. They’re trying to sell that platform to voters by saying that if Taiwan accepts being part of China, the risk of conflict with Beijing will diminish significantly. This won’t require Taiwan to surrender its sovereignty to Beijing because it doesn’t involve recognizing Beijing as the government of China. That is a very complex position. It has a lot of people confused, not only in Taiwan but also in the United States.

What’s also interesting about this election is that there’s now a significant third party trying to occupy the middle of the political spectrum. Historically, Taiwan has had a two-party system. A third-party candidate has never won a presidential election. 

This third party is called the Taiwan People’s Party and is led by the former mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je. He has tried to present himself as being the centrist in this debate. He has said on the one hand that the DPP is leading Taiwan toward a conflict with China, while on the other, the KMT is leading Taiwan to become too close to Beijing. He positions himself in the center of those two platforms.

The two main opposition parties were intending to form a coalition, but that has fallen apart amid a dramatic couple of weeks in Taiwanese politics. Tell us about what happened.

There were last-minute negotiations about forming a joint ticket. Initially, there was an agreement that there would be a joint ticket, but then the talks reportedly collapsed because they couldn’t agree on who would run in the presidential slot and who would run in the vice-presidential slot. Neither side was willing to give way and now they’re running on separate tickets. 

Who’s leading in the polls? 

At the moment, the candidate from the current ruling party, William Lai, is leading. However, the margin of is not large enough to suggest that the DPP would have a comfortable victory in the election. At this point, it’s a coin toss among the three candidates. 

You and your colleagues have done research and public opinion surveys in Taiwan to understand the Taiwanese people’s views about a range of issues. What do voters think about Taiwan’s relationship with the U.S. versus its relationship with China?

This is a survey project that I’ve been working on with my colleagues in Taiwan, Hsin-Hsin Pan, Chien-Huei Wu, and Wen-Chin Wu. We have fielded this survey every year for the last three years and can track changes in opinion since 2021. What we found—and this is in line with other public opinion surveys—is that there’s a strong consensus in favor of the status quo in Taiwan. The issue becomes, what is the status quo? Different interpretations of the status quo are the main dividing line among the electorate in Taiwan, and it’s what the various parties are campaigning on. 

There is little support for an immediate declaration of independence, and even less for reunification with China. Most of the support is for some version of the status quo. But within that notion of accepting the status quo, there’s a divergence of opinion. Respondents were divided on how they interpret the current nature of the status quo with regard to Taiwan’s relationship with China. 

Most of the respondents said that they did not think Taiwan and China were part of the same country, but there is still a minority that considers Taiwan to be part of China.

We followed up with respondents who said that Taiwan and China were part of the same country. A lot of people decided to skip the question. The results are significant and gives a snapshot of the unease that even people who support the One China concept have about developing closer ties with Mainland China. For the people who said that Taiwan and China are part of the same country, we asked the follow-up question: what is that country?

Very few people said that the country was the People’s Republic of China. A lot of people said that it is the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name. That is close to the KMT’s platform of the 1992 consensus. 

Does Taiwan’s dominance in the semiconductor sector makes any move by China less likely or more likely? And what do Taiwanese people think about that

Personally, I think that Taiwan’s dominance in the semiconductor industry makes it more likely that the United States will intervene in Taiwan’s defense. Right now, there’s a great deal of debate within the U.S. about whether the United States should support Taiwan and how much. People who argue in favor of supporting Taiwan such as Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher have placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of TSMC and Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. 

He cites a figure from the office of the Air Force that found that if China annexed Taiwan, it would control of 80 percent of the computer chip manufacturing in the world. People like Mike Gallagher cite Taiwan’s geoeconomic importance to build support for Taiwan in U.S. domestic politics. We’ve also seen this in European discussions of Taiwan’s security. 

For a long time, Europe was very distant from these debates about Taiwan’s security. More recently, there has been much more attention paid. One of the key arguments that European leaders have been selling to voters is that Taiwan’s chip industry is critically important for their lives and for the prosperity of the global economy. The G7 has referred to Taiwan’s security as being indispensable to peace and prosperity around the world. 

I think that the Taiwan semiconductor industry is very important for its security. But voters in Taiwan don’t actually seem to agree with me. This Silicon-Shield argument comes up a lot in the news, but when we asked the public, “do you think TSMC makes them more likely that America will intervene in Taiwan’s defense?” over 50 percent say they don’t really believe in that argument. That’s the positive Silicon-Shield argument in the sense that it’s about the United States supporting Taiwan. There’s also a negative Silicon-Shield argument, which is that, because of TSMC’s critical importance in the semiconductor industry, the company has come under a lot of pressure from the United States and other countries to relocate semiconductor manufacturing outside of Taiwan. 

This negative Silicon-Shield argument says that if TSMC moves to the U.S., then the United States will not defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. But what we found is that most of the respondents in our surveys don’t buy that argument either. Overall, we found that there isn’t strong support for the Silicon-Shield argument, either positive or negative. If you break it down by party, it becomes a more interesting picture in that you find that people who support the DPP tend to be more willing to express support for the positive Silicon-Shield argument, whereas people who support the KMT tend to be more supportive of the negative Silicon-Shield argument. There are a lot of mixed views on this in Taiwan, but the trend is a general skepticism. 

Have there been any moves to relocate TSMC to the U.S.?

Starting with the Trump administration, there’s been a lot of pressure coming from the United States to relocate chip manufacturing. That pressure hasn’t changed much under the Biden administration, because there’s been a general shift toward industrial policy in the United States. TSMC has agreed to establish new fabrication facilities [fabs] in Arizona and to upgrade them with increasingly advanced technology. 

It hasn’t gone as smoothly as the United States would like. Construction delays and labor disputes have slowed TSMC’s ability to roll out large-scale manufacturing in the United States. Furthermore, TSMC has sought to address U.S. manufacturing concerns without transferring all of its most valuable assets to the United States by setting up fabs that can produce technologies that are one generation behind what is being produced in Taiwan. If you follow the announcement of TSMC, which say which kind of process technology will be deployed with large-scale fabs in Arizona, and you match it against with what it’s announced in Taiwan, it’s been staggered. This way they can please everyone in that the U.S. is getting more advanced technology with each new generation, but Taiwan isn’t transferring all of its most advanced technology to the U.S. either.

We’re about to head into our own highly consequential presidential election here in the U.S. in 2024. And the question, no matter what topic it is, is how will the election impact global politics? How will it impact geoeconomics? Depending on the outcome here in the United States, what do you think the impact will be, depending on who wins the election for Taiwan and for U.S.-Taiwan relations? 

The Republican Party has been very supportive of Taiwan historically and continues consistently into the present, but Donald Trump during his presidency signaled a transactional view of Taiwan. For example, when he was elected in 2016, Trump said, “I don’t know why we have to support a One China policy if they’re not willing to make a deal with us on other things like trade.” It seemed like he was willing to treat Taiwan as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Beijing. Whereas Biden has not talked that way about Taiwan. Biden has been clear that if China were to attack Taiwan, under Biden, the United States would deploy military forces. Trump has not made those kinds of statements. The Republican Party as a whole is much more supportive of Taiwan. But Trump as a candidate doesn’t really seem like he’s as supportive of Taiwan compared to Biden. 

James Lee, thanks for being with us on Talking Policy. Look forward to catching up with you after the election.

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