How can the United States support Taiwan, as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act, without supporting the electoral prospects of a particular party? That is the potentially sticky conundrum facing the United States as the island’s presidential campaigns get underway. There is, of course, plenty of “normal” business to which both governments must attend regardless of the election calendar, from various diplomatic dialogues to enhancing economic links to arms sales. To be sure, progress in any of these areas could provide a boost for the incumbent candidate, but that is simply the nature of the game. Things get more complicated when it comes to assisting Taipei in its efforts to counter Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations in Taiwan.
China’s interference in Taiwan’s democracy is a genuine challenge. Via disinformation campaigns, media warfare, local politicking, and perhaps illicit finance, the CCP is seeking to weaken Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), boost the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and undermine confidence in Taiwan’s democratic institutions. These efforts seem to have crescendoed ahead of Taiwan’s nine-in-one elections last November. The November elections brought about a stunning defeat for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Given the magnitude of the KMT’s victory, it is unlikely that CCP interference was decisive. But it is not difficult to imagine that in a closer contest, marginal effects could be pivotal.
A few weeks after the election, Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Marco Rubio, along with four of their colleagues, addressed a letter to the US Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Director of National Intelligence, and Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in which they expressed concern about apparent CCP interference in the polls. The senators also called for action:
“…we write to express our support for efforts to counter interference of this nature and to state unequivocally that we stand shoulder to shoulder with democracies fighting attempts to undermine their sovereignty and freedom. We encourage your departments to do all you can to support Taiwan in investigating these allegations and taking necessary action in response.”
The senators have the right idea. To the extent that Taiwan and the United States, which is facing its own CCP influence operations, can cooperate in grappling with this challenge, they should do so. The difficulty may come in doing so without painting the opposition party as complicit in Chinese efforts to undermine the integrity of Taiwan’s electoral processes.
The KMT and the DPP, of course, have different approaches to cross-Strait relations. As the CCP’s old nemesis in the contest for power in China, the KMT does not share the DPP’s pro-independence background. Nominally pro-unification, the KMT is essentially a status quo party—as is the DPP. Although KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) has suggested the government could pursue a peace treaty in the event the KMT takes the presidency next year, his party would be unlikely to rush into a political settlement with Beijing. There would be no mandate to do so and little public support for such an initiative.
Consider, for example, the KMT’s response to Xi Jinping’s speech of January 2 in which the CCP general secretary linked the so-called “1992 Consensus” to unification under a “one country, two systems” framework. Wu Den-
Yet, the KMT is not nearly as wary as the DPP when it comes to deepening engagement with Beijing. Reporting during a recent trip to Taipei, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin summed up the KMT outlook as he saw it:
Several KMT officials and former officials told our delegation fears of China were overblown and seeking accommodation with Beijing was the only reasonable approach. Former deputy foreign minister Bruce Linghu said the KMT is not “pro-China” but rather “pro-peace.”
“Taiwan has to play it smart,” he said. “Why should we be provocative with China?”
Rogin, however, is skeptical of the KMT’s preferred direction. “KMT officials insist they support the US-China relationship and are not trying to appease Beijing,” he wrote. But pointing to Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu’s (韓國瑜) recent visit to China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, Rogin notes, “actions speak louder than words.” The columnist concludes his piece by arguing that “time is running out fast for the United States to show the Taiwanese people they have international support for refusing to acquiesce to Beijing’s dominance over their politics, economy, and society.”
Readers could draw the conclusion—Rogin does not do so—that such “support” should translate into US support for the DPP in next January’s elections. After all, if the CCP is seeking to use its influence to subvert democratic institutions and oust Tsai from power—and if the KMT is more amenable to Beijing’s terms for defining the cross-Strait relationship—then it stands to reason that the two parties find themselves in alignment on certain matters. And given that Beijing’s terms for defining the relationship undoubtedly include downgrading US-Taiwan relations, it is no wonder that some in Washington may see a DPP government as a better partner for the United States.
It is worth noting, however, that even as the last KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou, pursued deeper engagement with Beijing, he also continued efforts to strengthen US-Taiwan relations and to buy new fighters and submarines from the United States. Interfering in a reliable democratic ally’s political process would be a mistake. The Obama administration was rightly pilloried ahead of the 2012 election for voicing concerns about Tsai’s ability to manage cross-Strait ties and thus interfering in a close partner’s domestic democratic processes. The United States should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in fellow democracies.
But the question remains: how can the United States, without appearing to favor one party over the other, aid Taiwan in its efforts to counter CCP influence operations when the electoral beneficiary of said operations is often the KMT?
Domestic consensus on the existence of the challenge is necessary if real progress is to be made in grappling with it. But at the moment, such consensus seems to be elusive. The most important role for the United States to play, then, may be that of a convener. For example, the United States might consider hosting a series of track 1.5 or track 2 dialogues over the coming months, with members of Taiwan’s major parties invited, to discuss various aspects of the CCP’s influence operations. Held behind closed doors and away from the dueling campaigns in Taiwan, participants might make better progress in reaching consensus on the nature of the problem and potential solutions, to be proposed jointly upon their return home.
The United States may also be able offer some assistance in identifying illicit donations to political campaigns in Taiwan. It is perfectly legal for Taiwan citizens overseas, including in China, to make political donations at home. There has long been concern, however, that Chinese actors could use Taiwan business entities in China to funnel money to the CCP’s preferred candidates. The authorities in Taipei have limited ability to trace money outside Taiwan’s borders, but the US Department of Treasury is particularly adept at doing so. In some cases, it may be able to provide assistance in proving or disproving allegations of illegal campaign contributions, thus contributing to the integrity of Taiwan’s democratic processes. Presumably, no major party in Taiwan has an interest in being directly linked to Chinese money.
The question of CCP influence operations in Taiwan is a sensitive one. The DPP does not want to be seen as blaming others for its election failures or accusing the KMT of being unable to win without foreign intervention on its behalf. The United States wants to support democracy in Taiwan, but does not want to be seen as favoring one party over the other. It will likely be difficult to make significant advances in countering CCP influence during an election year, which is unfortunate, for it is precisely during elections that such influence is particularly pernicious.
The main point: Countering CCP influence operations during an election year requires a delicate political balancing act. The United States can offer modest assistance in supporting the integrity of Taiwan’s democracy without intervening to support either party.