Comment: No matter who was elected as Taiwan's president, China's goal of unification remains the same

From a non-Taiwanese perspective: not a lot.

Tan Min-Wei | January 14, 2024, 04:43 PM

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At the 2023 Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was asked about the state of United States - China relations, especially as the two presidents had just met during the G20 summit.

Vivian gave a very considered answer, saying he would “differentiate between climate and weather”.

The weather might get sunnier, but the underlying factors and data would determine future trends.

As this op-ed in Bloomberg described it: there may be cyclical improvements (or declines), but there are also structural shifts in progress.

In other words, the geopolitical contest between China and the U.S. is likely to stay, even though on some days the two presidents might warmly shake hands in the California sun and compare cars, and on other days, one might call the other a dictator.

But no matter the short-term developments, the underlying tension is not going away.

Climate control

The idea of weather and climate is a useful lens with which to look at other world events.

William Lai Ching-te, described as “despised by Beijing”, has won the 2024 Taiwan presidential election.

He extends the Democratic People’s Party term in the presidential office from eight to 12 years, and will now prompt many to ask if his election means that Taiwan is more a DPP island than a Kuomintang one, as it traditionally has been.

It also prompts those in Southeast Asia and the world to ask: what does this mean for us, and how will it impact our future?

Lai's win probably represents bad weather ahead for the Beijing-Taipei relationship.

Beijing has refused to speak to Tsai Ing-wen, the outgoing DPP president, and is unlikely to change their stance with Lai.

Lai has famously said that Taiwan has no need to declare independence, it is already independent, citing its holding of presidential elections as something only independent countries would do.

More recently, Lai has also said that he wishes to maintain the status quo, instead of pushing for formal independence.

Still, to say that Lai's electoral victory represents a change of climate is quite suspect.

China’s declaration that Taiwan will be unified predates the formation of the DPP, let alone the Tsai government.

A question of priority

Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is a priority for him, and is inevitable.

The question is a matter of how.

So this leads some to imagine that a different political leader in Taiwan will allow for better communication, and a change in the nature of the relationship.

But this seems misguided, especially when you compare the comments of former KMT president Ma Ying-jeou and their 2024 candidate Hou Yu-ih.

Ma was clear in his advocacy for eventual peaceful reunification, saying in an interview with Deutsche Well that Taiwan could not win a war against China.

He said that unification was acceptable to the Taiwanese people, as it is included in the Constitution, as long as the process is also done peacefully and democratically.

However, Ma also acknowledged that the Taiwanese people did not want unification "at the moment".

Instead of aligning himself with these comments, Hou distanced himself from Ma.

The Taipei Times quoted him as saying that he would stubbornly defend Taiwan’s democracy and freedom, and oppose the “one country, two systems” formula that Beijing has traditionally supported for unification.

Ma was also not invited to a KMT rally before the election.

This is far from a call for independence, but does give an indication that both the opposition and the incumbent agree that reunification is not an immediate priority.


But we should also consider that China's long term trend has been to ensure that it can force the issue militarily, if it deems it necessary.

Invasion may and conflict may not be China’s desire, but it’s indication appears to be that Xi wants to complete reunification within his political lifetime.

Now in the 11th year of what is traditionally a ten year term, it's unclear how long that lifetime will be.

But a four year Taiwanese presidential term is a long time for a man in his early 70s. He’s unlikely to want to be bound by a simple “leave KMT alone, only pressure the DPP” dichotomy.

And this is not unique to Xi, who said in his 2024 New Year’s speech that reunification was “inevitable”.

China's foreign ministry, in reaction to Lai's victory said:

"Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change;

the Chinese government's position of upholding the one-China principle and opposing "Taiwan independence" separatism, "two Chinas" and "one China, one Taiwan" will not change;

and the international community's prevailing consensus on upholding the one-China principle and the long-standing and overwhelming adherence to this principle will not change."

And they're right, China's Taiwan policy has not changed.

Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao has said the same, and so has Jiang Zemin; China has always been clear on what they believed the end result must be, regardless of what anyone in the West, or Taiwan, thought.

“We must firmly oppose any words or actions aimed at creating an "independent Taiwan" and the propositions "split the country and rule under separate regimes", "two Chinas over a certain period of time", etc., which are in contravention of the principle of one China.”

These words, without context, could be from any of China’s leaders in my lifetime. As it stands, it was from a 2004 speech, 20 years ago.

To further prove my point, they're also from an even older speech, made in 1995.

This is likely what Lai was referring to when he said at the first presidential debate; “In the eyes of China, the three (presidential candidates) are supporters of ‘Taiwan independence’", as quoted by Reuters.

In Lai’s assessment, it's the very act of Taiwan holding democratic elections in the first place that China cannot abide.

Hou tacitly agreed, saying “I do not harbour unrealistic ideas about China’s intentions for Taiwan”, saying he would pursue a stronger defence while pursuing dialogue and discussion, as quoted by the Taipei Times.

Climate change denialism

What does Southeast Asia and the world take from this? In terms of the prospects for conflict in Taiwan, as China implies: nothing has changed, and nothing would have changed, no matter who won.

I put it to you, there is no Taiwanese president whose inauguration a Southeast Asian leader could attend without compromising their relationship with China. Even if KMT's Hou had won, it would be unlikely that any Asean leader could attend without provoking a sharp rebuke from China.

Simply put: the climate of the cross-strait relationship is already bad; and the election of Lai looks like it's the start of another bad weather event for the China-Taiwan relationship, bad enough that it may worsen the underlying climate.

But the assumption that a bout of good weather, in the form of a KMT or TPP victory, could notably improve the climate feels overly optimistic.

It should also be said that one might not want to read too much into the the election of Lai. Foreign policy, for lack of a better term in the case of Taiwan, is never the sole issue in an election campaign, and almost never the most important.

The issue with electing presidents using the First-Past-the-Post system, especially when there are more than two candidates, is that winners rarely receive outright majorities.

This doesn't make them illegitimate, as some might wish to imply, but it does contextualise their mandate.

It is useful to remember that while Lai is clearly more popular than either of his two opponents, his party has lost their majority in the legislature, for the first time since 2016, as reported by Focus Taiwan.

But as the KMT has a single seat more than the DPP, the stage is set for more contestation, with the TPP having a larger say to decide the path the legislature takes.

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Top image via 蕭美琴 Bi-khim Hsiao/Facebook