The big league: Why Taiwan’s elections matter to China and the United States

Taiwan has been enmeshed in United States foreign policy for over 60 years—and it’s often been a point of key contention in U.S.-China relations. Taiwan’s role and impact have varied greatly over time, as has its impact on U.S.-China relations, for good or ill. The level of tensions has ebbed and flowed, along with the various factors at play, but the key factor has always been the degree of enmity between Beijing and Taipei. A high level of tension entails the risk of wider conflict that might draw in the United States and leads each side to enlist Washington support.

High-stakes presidential politics

The main variable setting the level of tension has typically been presidential elections in Taiwan. As they produce new leaders, they often yield new policies towards China. Since 2008, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has sought to reassure Beijing about his government’s intentions, engage with China to normalize and expand cross-Strait economic relations, and create new stakes for both sides in the preservation of peace and stability. 

Beijing responded well to these initiatives, but has not taken all the steps that Ma has sought. The improvement in cross-Strait relations benefited the United States, since it freed up national security decision-makers from any immediate crisis and helped the Obama administration improve its bilateral relations with Taipei. The Taiwan public’s satisfaction with the results was enough to give Ma a clear re-election victory.

Taiwan will have its next presidential election on January 16, as well as elections for a new legislature. It appears that Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will win an easy victory against Eric Chu, the candidate of the ruling Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT), Ma Ying-jeou’s party. Tsai has been rather vague about her China policies, but Beijing has long believed that she and the DPP have the ultimate objective of separating Taiwan from the mainland and cutting political ties with the Beijing regime. The KMT, for its part, is vague about the ultimate relationship with China, but opposes Taiwan independence. 

China has stated several principles that it insists any leader of Taiwan must accept to maintain good cross-Strait relations. Ma signaled well before the 2008 election that he would accept those points, while adding his own definition. Eric Chu has said that he would accept them as well. Tsai has given no indication that she will accommodate to Beijing’s wishes.

The search for meaning

Tsai’s likely election will thus present China with a choice. Will it ignore its own principles for the sake of continuity and good relations? Will it trigger deterioration in cross-Strait relations to impose costs on Taiwan for electing a leader that it doesn’t like? How will Taiwan respond? And how will the United States react to a more complicated cross-Strait dynamic?

In a new essay, I explore Taiwan’s democratization and how it affected the island’s relations with China and the United States; the current electoral situation in Taiwan; and what the likely outcome of the presidential election may mean for policies towards China. I also examine what Tsai Ing-wen, the current front-runner, has said about her cross-Strait policies; why the November 7 meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping was significant; and what options Beijing has for responding to a Tsai victory. 

Finally, I explain the key implications for U.S. policy towards Taiwan, concluding that Washington will have to maintain a close and careful watch on cross-Strait developments in order to protect its “abiding interest” in peace and stability in the Taiwan area.