The Taiwanese people spoke clearly and loudly in the presidential and legislative elections held on January 11, giving the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a strong mandate to continue to pursue closer ties with the US-led liberal-democratic order. In defeating her opponent from the Kuomintang (KMT), Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), with a precedent-setting 8.1 million votes and nearly 20 points, Tsai finds herself even more empowered to work with the Americans and partners in the region to secure a free Indo-Pacific region. Taiwan’s future role as a partner in such efforts was arguably contingent on a Tsai reelection: had Han been elected, Taiwan would likely have drawn down efforts to collaborate with the United States and other democracies as a price to pay for closer ties with Beijing. By holding on to its majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan, the DPP has also retained its ability to pass bills and budgets which will be necessary to ensure its participation in the US-led strategy in the region.
Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s reaction to Tsai’s landslide re-election has been negative and presages continuation, if not intensification, of its policy of pressuring Taiwan. In a statement, the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) repeated its unwavering stance on Taiwan and opposition to “Taiwan independence.” In an attempt to delegitimize the outcome of the elections, official state media in China, meanwhile, alleged that the Tsai government had engaged in “dirty tactics” and “repression” to win the elections, adding that “external forces,” including the United States, were involved.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and his circle of advisers, therefore, are unlikely to be enlightened by the outcome of Taiwan’s elections in a way that would lead them to change Beijing’s official policy towards Taiwan—this notwithstanding President Tsai’s once again offering an olive branch to Beijing in her victory speech on January 11.
Consequently, Beijing is expected to ramp up its military coercion, political warfare, disinformation campaign and other efforts to undermine Taiwan’s institutions and break the democratic firewall that, once again, has stood in the way of Xi’s ambitions in the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing’s likely belligerent response to January 11 makes it essential that Taiwan’s partners, chief among them the United States, Japan, and Australia, continue to extend—and arguably to increase—their support on matters of security so as to deter China from seeking a military “solution” to the Taiwan Strait. Tellingly, President Tsai immediately met with the top US diplomat in Taiwan, American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director William Brent Christensen, on the day after her election. During that meeting, Tsai reportedly said that “The Taiwan-US partnership has already grown from a bilateral partnership to a global partnership. In the future, we will continue to build on the foundation we have created over the past three years to strengthen our cooperation on global issues.”
Beijing’s likely belligerent stance will also ostensibly lead to attempts to poach Taiwan’s remaining official diplomatic allies, developments that, in turn, will encourage Washington to implement countervailing measures to ensure Taiwan’s continued ability to engage the international community (prior to the elections, Beijing warned that if Tsai were re-elected, China would capture all of Taiwan’s remaining official diplomatic allies). China’s ramped-up “sharp power” activities against Taiwan mentioned above will also encourage closer cooperation between Taiwan, the United States, and other partners, such as the Five Eyes. As Taiwan increases intelligence-sharing with the United States and other likeminded partners, greater efforts will be necessary to ensure the integrity of classified material, especially in light of the presence of a handful of new KMT legislators-at-large installed in the wake of the January 11 elections, who have suspected ties with the Chinese side.
On the military front, incentives for closer cooperation between the Taiwanese armed forces and the United States will continue to mount as China challenges the status quo both in the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific. A new premium on joint training will emerge, and with US encouragement, other countries in the region could also be encouraged to work more closely with Taiwan, perhaps beginning with search and rescue and humanitarian activities.
As stated by Tsai on the night of the elections, Taiwan will continue to seek engagement with the United States through initiatives such as the Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF), a highly successful framework based upon a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the US Department of State and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that in recent months has attracted the participation of other partners, including Japan and Sweden, with other countries expressing interest in emulating the mechanism. Several GCTF rounds are already being planned for 2020, including a third one touching on information security and media literacy.
Progress on a bilateral FTA between Taiwan and the United States will once again be contingent on Taipei finding a way to resolve a beef and pork issue which for far too long has hampered the resumption of negotiations on a trade agreement.
At this writing it is uncertain whether Taiwan’s representative to the United States, Stanley Kao (高碩泰), will remain in his position or be called back to Taipei to serve in the Foreign Ministry. Regardless, it is expected that Taipei will ensure that the dialogue, which has existed between the two sides since 2016, is unaffected.
Taiwan as a Proxy?
Some political commentators, including Charles I-hsin Chen (陳以信), a former spokesman for president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who was included in the KMT’s legislative “safe list” for at-large seats in the January 11 elections, argued recently that the political competition between China and the United States for influence in or over Taiwan constitutes a “proxy war.”
A proxy war, as Daniel L. Byman explains, “occurs when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself” (Byman here wasn’t writing about Taiwan, but I find his definition useful for the purposes of this article). In Taiwan’s case, a proxy war would entail two major powers—the United States and China—playing major roles in supporting competing forces within Taiwan without those two major powers themselves being involved in an actual conflict.
It would be a mistake to regard the situation over Taiwan through the lens of a proxy war. Rather, the Asian country of 23 million people is on the frontlines of competition between two superpowers. It sits atop a fault line in an escalating ideological battle between the US-led liberal-democratic order that has prevailed since the end of World War II, and an autocratic would-be alternative that, under Xi, has embarked on a mission, despite its claims to the contrary, to dismantle that order. Taiwan is not a territory where superpowers can wage a mere proxy war: it makes its own decisions, and choses which side it wants to be on in that ideological contest—in other words, it has agency. And the January 10 general elections, in which two key contenders with very different ideas about where Taiwan’s future lies were vying for the nation’s top office, was an important round in that agency.
Given its geographical location and Beijing’s ambitions, Taiwan will inevitably be caught in the strategic competition between the two superpowers. And given this, which side of the contest Taiwan ends up in—democratic or authoritarian—will have an impact on the outlook of that ideological competition. It must be emphasized, however, that Taiwan is not a mere pawn, or proxy, in all this: it has a say in the matter; its actions—those of its government and the voting public, not to mention civil society—have a direct impact on those outcomes. Taiwan therefore gets to decide, to a large extent, which side it’s on. It is, therefore, a participant in the larger battle for the future global order.
One fundamental point that needs to be repeated is that states never act entirely altruistically. Therefore, to claim that, in the past, the United States acted more out of consideration for “what is good for Taiwan” as opposed to “what is good for the US” misses the point. For one thing, interests can coincide; what is good for Taiwan can also be good, simultaneously, for the US. It is also worth pointing out that in comparing US policy today with that from, say, a decade ago, we must take the changing geopolitical context into consideration: perceptions of the China threat back then differed markedly from those today, in large part due to the rise of Xi and the emergence of China as a powerful revisionist regime, one with the means, at last, to act on its territorial and ideological ambitions. And because of this, we have experienced a reassessment, not just in Washington but in other capitals as well, of the value of Taiwan as a partner in the liberal-democratic order’s fledging, and not always perfectly coherent, efforts to come up with a strategy to counter China’s more nefarious ambitions.
Since 2016, Washington has been increasingly open in its political and military support for Taiwan, and Taipei under the Tsai administration has undeniably embraced that support. Still, some critics of the Trump administration have pointed out that, in light of the recent “abandonment” of the Syrian Kurds, longtime allies of the United States in its campaign against radical groups in the Middle East, is would unwise for Taipei to rely too heavily on the United States.
Taiwan no doubt would be delighted to be in a position where it can diversify its sources of security guarantees, but unfortunately that is not the case, and only the United States has been willing to extend such help. That being said, Taiwan has also put greater emphasis on strengthening its indigenous defense industry and the results of such initiatives should not be ignored. As to abandonment, I believe there would be tremendous opposition to such a move involving Taiwan within both the executive and legislative branches of the US government. While certainly not downplaying the plight of the Kurds and the role they have played in countering ISIS, or the detrimental effects that abandonment could have on their people, the stakes in the Indo-Pacific, and Taiwan’s position within this architecture, are arguably much greater. Abandonment of Taiwan would be a decision with far greater geopolitical implications for the United States and the international community, and therefore one that is less likely to be made by Washington, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
The main point: Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election in a landslide on January 11 will ensure a continued and flowering relationship with the United States on matters from democracy promotion to securing a free and open Indo-Pacific. The outcome, and Beijing’s reaction to it, have created new incentives for Washington to ensure that its democratic ally is sufficiently capable of defending itself against the expected Chinese retaliation.