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The countdown has begun for Taiwan's January 13 presidential and legislative elections. Three candidates are running in the next presidential election. China calls on its 19 million “Taiwanese compatriots” to “vote correctly,” and from Beijing, Xi Jinping repeats that China will “definitely be reunified” and Taiwan integration will be “inevitable”

Elections are crucial for the future of China-US relations

Taiwan is preparing for presidential and legislative elections. For 10 days, from January 3 to 13, a period of pre-election silence reigns throughout the island. Until the end of voting, publication of the results of any opinion polls related to the election is prohibited. On Saturday, January 13, approximately 19.5 million eligible voters will be called to the polls (the exact number will not be known until January 9). Taiwan does not allow mail-in voting or early voting, so there are 17,794 polling stations open across the island. According to international analysts, the outcome of the vote will be decisive both for the future balance between Beijing and Taipei and for relations between the world’s two major economic powers, China and the USA.

Three competing parties

The election campaign began on December 16. There are three candidates to become the next president of Taiwan: Ko Wen-je of the People’s Party (TPP), Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang Party (KMT).

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has ruled Taiwan since 2016. The main opposition force is represented by the nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT), and the People’s Party (TPP) is trying to present itself to voters as a real alternative to the political programs of both progressives and nationalists. The three political factions have different visions for the future of relations with “great” China, led by the Communist Party, which has never ceased to consider Taiwan as its “rebel province” that must be “reunited” with the motherland.

China increases pressure

On December 3 last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would “definitely be reunified” and that Taiwan’s integration would be “inevitable.” Addressing the nation in a traditional New Year speech, quoted by state news agency Xinhua, President Xi Jinping emphasized that “all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

“The reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability,” said Xi Jinping, according to whom the Chinese economy has become “more stable and dynamic than before.”

Presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan will be held against the backdrop of intense political and military pressure from Beijing. For this reason, the upcoming vote was even presented in Taiwan as a choice between “war and peace” with China. This was echoed by Zhang Zhijun, director of the China Association for Cross-Strait Relations, who invited Taiwanese voters to “vote correctly” in the presidential election, which represents “an important choice between the prospects of peace and war” with China. “The upcoming presidential and legislative elections,” said Zhang Zhijun, “represent an important choice between the prospects of peace and war, prosperity and decline. The island’s compatriots must stand on the correct side of history and make the correct choices to promote the development of cross-strait relations and return them to the correct path of peaceful development,” the Chinese official said.

For Taiwan, Chinese interference is becoming “increasingly sophisticated”

According to Taiwanese authorities, China’s interference is “becoming increasingly sophisticated.” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde that Beijing “wants to convey the message” that elections scheduled for January 13 on the self-ruled island, over which Beijing claims sovereignty, are “a choice between war and economic decline.” According to Wu, “war will be synonymous with disaster not only for Taiwan, but also for China and all other countries involved in it,” the head of Taiwanese diplomacy emphasized. “If supply shortages continue in Taiwan, the consequences for the rest of the world will be more serious than what happened with the war in Ukraine,” Minister Wu emphasized, recalling that 90% of the most advanced microchips are produced on the island.

For Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih, a Democratic takeover would exponentially increase the risk of armed conflict across the strait. For his part, DPP leader Lai Ching-te accused the opposition of “agreeing with Beijing’s policies” while “the elections will be a choice between authoritarianism and democracy for the people of Taiwan.”

Candidates’ election programs

For People’s Party leader Ko Wen-je, these positions are all “too ideological,” when it is necessary to encourage and develop a “constructive” dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party to “protect the autonomy of the island,” which has lived for decades on the basis of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” a diplomatic formula according to which the political leaders of China and Taiwan “implicitly acknowledge the existence of ‘one China’ without clearly defining its meaning.”

In this context, responding to Xi Jinping’s New Year message, the Taiwanese government said that relations with China should be developed on the basis of “dignity” and the “will of the people.” The island’s outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen called on China to respect the results of the presidential and legislative elections, emphasizing that maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is a “shared responsibility” of both governments. “The Taiwanese people want peace, but peace with dignity,” Tsai Ing-wen said.

The DPP’s presidential candidate is 64-year-old Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai), the current vice president of Taiwan. After receiving a Master of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, USA, he was elected to Taiwan’s parliament in 1996. Lai is a real thorn in the side of China, which considers him a “dangerous separatist element” due to his apparent past support for the independence cause. To soften the differences, Lai said that “he will not proceed with a formal declaration of Taiwan’s independence” because it would threaten the outbreak of a real war under the Anti-Secession Law approved in 2005 by the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top lawmaking establishment.

During the election campaign, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih, the current mayor of Taipei, said he was against the “one country, two systems” formula China has proposed for unification with Taiwan, but he also rejected the pro-independence agenda and considered it to have “no legal basis.” The nationalist candidate’s program is based on regular political consultations between the leaders of China and Taiwan with the goal of “easing tensions.” That is, Hou allegedly advocates maintaining the “de facto” independence of the island and its official name – the Republic of China, in order to avoid “dangerous hints” at the formal recognition of Taiwanese statehood.

The third candidate in the electoral trio is 64-year-old Ko Wen-je from the People’s Party. The former mayor of Taipei (2014–2022) founded the TPP in 2019 “in a ‘pragmatic’ attempt to open an alternative path to the traditional tug-of-war between the Democratic Progressive Party and the Kuomintang.” Ko pointed several times during the election period to his “winning strategy” to renew relations with Beijing through “dialogue” and “communication,” but also promised to “significantly increase spending on the defense of the island” if he wins the January 13 election.

Tensions hurt China-Taiwan trade

Geopolitical tensions have seriously damaged economic and trade relations between China and Taiwan. In total foreign trade, the share of Taiwanese exports to China has fallen from 39.5% to 35.4% over the past 7 years. Taiwan’s National Development Council (NDC) estimates that between January and November 2023, exports to the USA stood at 17.3%, up from 12.1% recorded in 2016. Not only trade, but Taiwan’s investment in China also “suffered a decline, falling from 50.1% (2015) to 11.5% last year.”

Giornalisti e Redattori di Pluralia

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