Taiwan's recent local elections have received unprecedented attention from the international community. The election took place amid higher tensions in the Taiwan Strait than ever, due to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks on the use of force. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won only five out of the 21 local chief posts, while the opposition Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) won 13, including the capital Taipei. It was the DPP’s biggest defeat since the regime change in 2004, and President Tsai resigned as the chairwoman of the governing DPP to take responsibility for the defeat.
This result is expected to bring a significant impact on cross-strait relations and US-China relations in the future. After President Tsai was elected in 2016, she made Taiwan’s independence a priority, and tensions between Taiwan and China began to rise accordingly. Since then, Taiwan has been implementing a ‘pro-US anti-China’ policy that strengthens relations with the US, Japan, and Europe and confronts China. With the recent election result, we are watching whether Tsai’s stance toward the US and China will be adjusted and how it will affect the next Taiwanese presidential election, which will be held in January 2024. Also, one of the additional concerns is about how these will affect the surrounding relations.
Given the current situation, this week’s interview invites experts from China and Taiwan, who specialize in cross-strait relations. Professor Tang Yong-hong is from China and is currently at the Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies of Xiamen University, and Distinguished Professor Tsai Tung-Chieh from Taiwan where he is a Dean in the College of Law and Politics at National Chung Hsing University.
Hwang: How do you assess the recent local election in Taiwan?
Tsai: Technically, this election had something surprising and something that is not. Surprisingly, the ruling DPP’s defeat was very natural. First of all, according to the pendular effect on democratic political parties’ changes, the ruling party suffers similar fatigue at the end of its second term. Moreover, the pressure accumulated throughout society due to COVID-19 and improper management of several domestic events during the election caused a ‘revenge rebound’ in this election. Nevertheless, the fact that the DPP totally defeated in some main areas and barely won in some areas was an unimaginable result. Also, this election recorded the lowest turnout in Taiwan’s local elections, and from here, we can have another analysis which breaks down our existing thought that the low turnout should be in favor of the DPP.
Tang: As expected, the KMT (Kuomintang, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party) won a great victory. The overall election situation for the DPP was not well prepared than in 2018, showing the DPP’s sluggish power, which was mostly suspected through opening up imports of pork and poor quarantine. Additionally, candidates’ requirements and qualifications did not meet party and social expectations. As a result of this election, Tsai’s confidence and leadership authority in the party will fall, and it will certainly affect the DPP’s 2024 presidential candidate. The current vice president Lai Ching-te is likely to be the ‘presidential’ candidate within the DPP in 2024. Just because the KMT won the local elections does not necessarily mean it will win the 2024 presidential election. However, Taiwan’s politics will fall back into a stand-off.
Hwang: How will this local election affect cross-strait relations?
Tsai: In the short term, this election may not have much impact on cross-strait relations. First, cross-strait relations are difficult to be affected by the results of local elections because they span the upper political and central government classes. Second, although the DPP has critically lost in this election, the ‘middle effect’ of Taiwan’s local elections is not clear, for the instance of the 2018 election, and there is no possibility of completely breaking ties with the presidential election that the chain impact seems to be quite limited. The DPP initially tried to put anti-China agenda forward in this election, however, belonging to a particular party was not very important as nearly half of Taiwan’s local Congressmen were independent. Third and more importantly, although the DPP has lost critically, only few will think it can win in 2024, at least in the short term, and the key is the selection issue. The impact of the local elections on cross-strait relations will be even more limited as the party might not be able to win the presidential election.
Tang: China wants stability, but not everything goes as it wishes. Anti-China forces in the US and Taiwan that support its independence are the key variables in cross-strait relations. In the post-Tsai Ing-wen era, based on the social atmosphere and political ecosystem of seeking for independence, the DPP’s stance will probably create a vicious cycle of cross-strait relations, as it will intensify ‘Taiwan’s independence’ by strengthening the existing ‘Independence Card’ and ‘Sovereignty Card’. Ultimately, the cross-strait relations before 2024 will go through a severe wave height.
Hwang: How would you view the perspective that the semiconductor industry is ensuring Taiwan’s security?
Tsai: The semiconductor industry is often called a ‘silicon shield’ when discussing Taiwan’s security issues. This mainly comes from a position that Taiwan’s position cannot be underestimated in advanced semiconductor manufacturing processes worldwide. That is why many major and international political commentators said that if Taiwan’s conflict jeopardizes the semiconductor supply chain, it will have a ‘destructive’ blow to the global economy. In this case, Taiwan can either strengthen its manufacturing advantage or provide its security advantage. However, since international relations still put ‘national interest first’ as a key principle so far, talented states like the US have asked TSMC to build a factory by mixing both the hardline and appeasements. The other, which is relatively incapable of negotiating leverage, may seek the possibility of disconnecting from Taiwan in order to search for alternatives. Therefore, the security of semiconductors alone cannot be the basis and source of Taiwan’s security stability.
Tang: Basically it must be a self-righteous expression of people who have no idea about international strategy and security. No industry can guarantee the security of one country, even if it is essential to the world economy. Furthermore, if a certain industry in a particular economy is indispensable to the other economy, and the other economy cannot receive their products or services, the industrial superiority will be difficult to be sustained for a long time and could lead to a security disaster at their industrial locations. In fact, in the course of realizing strategic objectives, no industry is fatally essential, and it can be reversed and restarted.
Hwang: What could be the outlook for US’s China policy after its midterm elections?
Tang: Over the past 40 years, China has constantly been rising, is overtaking the US, and objectively, international political and economic patterns and roles have gradually changed in accordance. Due to the unique differences between China and the US in terms of strategy and competition over interest, and value standards, social systems, and ideology, the current US-China relationship is facing a double-structured contradiction that it is not only a battle with the development of socialism and capitalism but also a battle of strategic interests between the emerging and defending powers. However, based on the hegemonic culture that ‘your strength will weaken my power’, the US recognizes that the rise of China is generally disadvantageous to the US hegemony and national interests, that its previous engaging China policy for China’s peaceful transition has failed, and that the double-structured contradictions between China and the US are more difficult to reconcile, therefore in the end, that it has to effectively restraint China’s developing trend. Thus, the US has made it clear that China will be the number one strategic competitor, and the US strategy and policy toward China have fundamentally changed from an engaging and exchanging policy to a suppressing strategic competition to contain China. Moreover, in the light of American culture and perception, this strategic competition between China and the US is essentially a strategic confrontation, and the competition that the outcome of victory or defeat cannot be determined will never stop. There is a consensus across the US regardless of the party. In this sense, fundamentally, the outcome of the US midterm elections will not change America's strategy and policy toward China.
Tsai: Although the US-Taiwan relationship heated up for the first time since 1979 following the explosion of the US-China trade war and the US chose ‘competition, not cooperation’ after 2018, bilateral interactions between the US and Taiwan have continued for the last few years, even after the inauguration of the Biden administration in 2020. The problem is that although the ‘anti-China’ is the current all-party agreement in the US, the administration must be prepared to be ‘risk-averse’, which is also why President Biden spoke to President Xi Jinping as soon as he took office. Also, the world is now in full swing, like the Ukraine war, amid the double pressure of COVID-19 and the economy. In other words, it is in a difficult situation that lacks the capacity for anti-China flow. Nevertheless, if the Republican Party won the midterm elections as expected, it would have put pressure on the White House, but with a ‘small defeat’, the Biden administration will slowly have room for improvement with Beijing.
Hwang: How do you see China’s Taiwan policy after its 20th National People's Congress?
Tang: We can generally see China’s Taiwan policy after the 20th Party Congress from the report of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP). Compared to the 19th Party Congress, the 20th Party Congress reiterated the resolution of the Taiwan issue and the realization of the complete reunification, which is an inevitable demand for the great revival of the Chinese people and it officially includes a comprehensive strategy for solving the Taiwan problem in the new era. It maintained the policy of ‘Peaceful reunification and One country·Two systems’ and makes it clear that ‘there is no promise of giving up the use of force’. Based on One China Policy and ‘1992 Consensus’, China continues appealing to promote cross-strait exchange and convergence development, and at the same time, clearly calls for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations, the process of reunification of the mainland through negotiations, the unity of Chinese compatriots from around the world, support the patriotic reunification capabilities in Taiwan, firmly support the ‘anti-independence pro-reunification’, and further emphasize the division of Taiwan’s separatist activists and the interference of external forces. On top of China’s will, the CPP’s strategy for Taiwan was adjusted according to the changes in the international and domestic circumstances, the Taiwan situation, and the main tasks of the new era.
Tsai: The impact of Beijing’s Taiwan policy is still limited. The reasons are first because structurally, China’s policy toward Taiwan is originally an outcome of trilateral relations between the US, China, and Taiwan. In other words, if there are limits in structural changes (In case the DPP and Biden are in power until at least 2024), the meaning of the policy will not change much. Second, if Taiwan’s 2022 local election does not influence the 2024 presidential election, Beijing has no other option but to consider the situation and trends in Taiwan. Third, since the DPP took power in 2016, Beijing’s Taiwan policy can be said to be so-called ‘Harder to hard, softer to soft’ and basically ‘you do yours, I do mine.' Xi’s policy toward Taiwan was probably already decided before the 20th National Congress. There are two principles we can see for now. First, the shortcut to Taiwan always goes through the US and the second one is that the will of the people matters much more than the attitude of the political party.
Hwang: What are the prospects for China’s US policy after the 20th National People's Congress?
Tang: US-China relations are related to the future fate of the US and China and the stability of world peace. For this reason, President Xi Jinping proposed the three principles of US-China mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation for a win-win, and President Biden has repeatedly stressed "five nos" (i.e., not seek a new Cold War; not seek to change China's system; the revitalization of its alliances is not against China; not support "Taiwan independence"; not look for conflict with China). The key point is that the US is rapidly pivoting to the rational China policy. China's policy toward the US is clear. China is determined to engage in multilateral coordination with the US’s side. China's attitude to strengthening bilateral economic and trade cooperation is also clear. China welcomes US companies’ further developments in China and will continue to provide a market-oriented, international, and legalized business environment. Economic trade between the US and China should be focused on addition rather than subtraction, they should hold hands without letting go, and not tear down or build walls. The two countries should talk together with paying attention to each other’s interests, not confront and negotiate, and not threaten one another.
Tsai: Currently, US-China relations may have entered another stage of qualitative change, that is, the key point of solving the Taiwan problem and the most important variable that determines the final state of ‘China’s rise’. In particular, Beijing has already been put in a position where it does not want to be the enemy of the US, as the US considers China the biggest threat to the US hegemony since the Trump era. Even if China has accumulated obvious results since its rise till now, the fact is that China has no choice but to face the existing hegemony. From this point of view, the heating up of the US-China competition not only jeopardizes China’s core interests but also makes its policy toward the US the top priority for Chinese diplomacy in the short term. Accordingly, there are three things China can do. The first is to improve its ability to deter counterattacks through military modernization, the second is to build a potential supporting platform by continuously expanding 'networks’, and the third is to maintain a communication channel with the US to achieve a response time that is necessary.
Hwang: Do you see all these are related to security on the Korean Peninsula?
Tsai: US-China-Taiwan exchanges are inseparable from the Korean Peninsula. First, the geopolitical positions of the two countries are not far away. Therefore, they are within the scope of leaking influence. Second, the US and China are currently competing and both Taiwan and Korea have to rely on the US to ensure national security. In an unexpected situation, the US has no choice but to capture the two. Third, in the case of Korea, the US-ROK alliance is to counter North Korea’s threats and South Korea does not want to subjectively intervene in the Taiwan Strait issue. However, it is understood that the US will constantly drag South Korea down from trying to hold the alliance’s ‘wartime operational control’. Fourth, Beijing should also prepare for situations in which the US is in a panic or North Korea triggers trouble with support from China in case Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula are in a conflict or the situation flows favorably to China.
Tang Yong-hong, a professor at the Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies of Xiamen
Tsai Tung-Chieh, a professor at the college of law and politics at the National Chung Hsing University