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Taiwan prepares to pick new president amid growing threat from China

Taiwan prepares to pick new president amid growing threat from China

Taiwan’s election on 13 January is the first of more than 40 national elections to be held around the world in 2024. It will determine the presidency and legislature governing 23.5 million people on an island that is similar in size to Belgium. But it has major implications for the world.

There are a host of issues for Taiwan’s voters, including the cost of living, housing and labour rights, energy, education, and elderly care. Taiwan has an ageing population and there is a significant wealth gap, with low minimum wages. The domestic campaign so far has seen standard cross-party sniping over competing promises, accusations of misconduct and corruption, and endless scandals ranging from allegedly plagiarised theses to charges of secret second nationalities.

But across the Taiwan strait, Beijing is preparing to take over. The ruling Communist party (CCP) claims Taiwan as a province of China, and it intends – at some point – to “reunify” it. Beijing has not renounced using force to do so, but is not believed to yet have the capability.

When Taiwan last went to vote for a president in 2020, the threat felt different. The Hong Kong protests and resulting crackdown were fresh in people’s minds, and a key part of Tsai Ing-wen’s successful campaign to be reelected president. But generally, when asked, people would brush off questions of imminent invasion. The “China threat” had been around for decades, and there was as much point ruining your day with worrying about it as there was being worried about another of Taiwan’s frequent earthquakes.

But in the years since cross-strait tensions have skyrocketed, and Beijing has increased its threats and acts of harassment, including several rounds of major military exercises which practised direct attacks on Taiwan. As a result the population has grown more wary, with many joining a growing number of civil defence groups, and making preparations for a possible invasion.

All major parties running for president reject the prospect of Chinese rule, as do a large and growing majority of Taiwan’s people. But there are key differences between them, which could lead to vastly different climates next year, and for Beijing the priority is to ensure the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) is kicked out of office.

“All three presidential candidates have acknowledged the potential risks of Taiwan becoming the next conflict zone. They aim to convince voters that they are the most capable leaders who can ensure peace and stability across the Taiwan strait,” says Jing Bo-jiun, a senior research fellow in Taiwan studies at the University of Oxford.

“What sets this year’s election apart is the influence of the ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, which have arguably heightened risk awareness among the Taiwanese public.”

Tsai must step down after serving a maximum two terms, but her vice-president, Lai Ching-te, is running to replace her and carry on the DPP’s rule. Up against him is Hou Yu-ih, a popular former mayor of New Taipei City who is running for the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party. Ko Wen-je, the former mayor of the capital, Taipei, is running as a third candidate for his self-founded Taiwan People’s party.

Early on, Ko and Hou had planned to team up, pooling their votes to defeat the DPP which was ahead but with only around a third of the vote. But the efforts collapsed in a public and embarrassing spectacle, and each registered as candidates separately, cementing in the three-way race.

Lai has pledged to continue Tsai’s efforts by maintaining the status quo and offering dialogue with Beijing, and has framed the election as a choice between “dictatorship and democracy”. But Beijing considers the DPP to be a party of separatists, and its primary goal is to see the party lose power. A campaign slogan recently unveiled by Lai urging people to “choose the right person, take the right path”, was reinterpreted by Chinese officials as choosing “separatists” to take a path to “independence”.

The Taiwan People’s party presidential candidate, Ko Wen-je, at a rally in Taoyuan city. Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA

Hou says a vote for the KMT is a vote for peace over war. Beijing says the same. The KMT has its historical roots in ruling China until it lost the civil war to the communists and fled to the island of Taiwan in 1949. There it established the Republic of China in exile and ran a brutal regime of martial law for decades. But it is seen as the party most amenable to Beijing, saying friendlier ties are the way towards peace. Its deputy chairman has made multiple trips to China in recent weeks.

Ko claims to offer a largely undefined “middle ground”, saying recently “vote DPP for conflict; vote KMT for capitulation”. Asked for details in recent interviews, Ko has repeated that he would be better at talking to both the US and China, and would develop Taiwan’s defences.

Taiwan’s biggest backer is the US, whose relations with Beijing have also plummeted over the same period. The US provides weapons to Taiwan, and under a doctrine known as “strategic ambiguity” it leaves open the prospect that it would come to Taiwan’s defence militarily if China attacked. But if China was to attack Taiwan, analysts believe it could also bring in regional neighbours like Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and broadening out further to allies in Europe and the Pacific, including Australia.

At the December forum current and former legislators from Japan and Korea reflected on the “unlikely engagement” of the two historic rivals that had been fostered by regional threats including Beijing’s hostility.

“China has unilaterally increased tension; in Japan there is growing awareness that crisis in Taiwan is crisis in Japan,” said Shiori Kanno, a former member of the Japanese House of Representatives. “But on the other hand, Japanese cooperation with Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and many others, is increasingly strengthened in order to protect a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The election is still weeks away, but there is already evidence of mounting influence operations and other forms of cognitive warfare. Deepfake videos of the DPP candidates and fake news about their eligibility are among the disinformation unearthed by factcheckers – a daunting job in Taiwan which for the last 10 years has been the largest recipient of foreign-created disinformation.

“China aims to exploit Taiwan’s open society through hybrid means … to try and shape the outcome of our election,” said the Taiwanese foreign minister, Joseph Wu, at a China-focused forum in Taipei in December.

Taiwan authorities are also investigating dozens of neighbourhood village leaders who have travelled to China in recent months, allegedly as part of an influence operation designed to increase votes for pro-China candidates.

The coercive military activity continues – there are still near daily People’s Liberation Army flights into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone – but more extreme action appears to have slowed. Analysts say this may be because Beijing sees that such harassment can boost support for the DPP, but they are also wary there is more serious intimidation planned before 13 January.

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin

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