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[All Politics is Global] The DPP Defeats China Politically for Now, but Will Xi Avenge Militarily?

While China couldn't thwart William Lai's presidential win, Xi could still use his rapidly modernizing army to realize his ultimate goal of "reunifying" Taiwan.



Democratic Progressive Party's Lai Ching-te, declares victory in the Taiwan presidential election on January 13, Taipei City. (Adapted from ©Sankei by Kengo Matsumoto)

Lai Ching-te (William Lai) is the new President-elect of Taiwan. He was the candidate for Taiwan's nationalist ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which champions the cause of independence from mainland China. Lai hails from a more radical wing of the DPP. He was once an open supporter of Taiwan's independence — considered a clear red line by Beijing.

In DPP's victory comes the defeat of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Party and its candidate, Hou Yu-ih — Beijing's preferred choice. Addressing thousands of jubilant supporters, Lai assured that he was "determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China."

Capturing more than 40 percent of the popular vote, Lai's victory holds multiple messages for cross-Strait relations. After all, political tensions are at an all-time high. 

The DPP has democratically won a historic third consecutive term for Taiwan's highest political office. This demonstrates that it has defeated mainland communist China, at least politically.

Taiwanese Identity

Xi Jinping has a discernible coercive politico-diplomatic, economic, and military agenda toward Taiwan. This has caused the majority of the Taiwanese population to want to maintain the current status quo. They show no desire to be ruled by Beijing. The situation has reached a point where Taiwan's public has determinedly shifted away from China. Less than 10 percent support an immediate or eventual unification. Further, less than three percent identify themselves primarily as Chinese.

The preliminary vote count is announced, bringing cheers at DPP headquarters in Taipei on January 13. (©Sankei by Kengo Matsumoto)

This rising trend of "Taiwanese identity" gaining precedence over "Chinese identity" has left Xi Jinping and the CCP fuming. Soon after the election results, China dismissed the outcome. It said the DPP "cannot represent mainstream public opinion" on the island. 

A mainland Chinese spokesperson commented that the results "will not impede the inevitable trend of China's reunification […] We will adhere to the 1992 Consensus that embodies the one-China principle."

Lai could well take a clue on how to respond to this from the current president, Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai resolutely takes a stance that Taiwan shall "never give in" to China. She has stated that the DPP government "will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation." 


By taking this position, Tsai adeptly circumvents the question of whether she accepts or rejects the 1992 Consensus on One China. It has been a repeated pledge and demand made by the mainland.

Escalating Offensive

China has made no secret of its desire to prevent a Lai victory. It repeatedly stated that the vote was a choice between "peace and war." This echoed a talking point of the opposition KMT. Before lifting martial law in 1987 and transitioning slowly toward free elections, the KMT ruled Taiwan with an iron fist for nearly four decades. This fits perfectly with Beijing's political agenda for the island.

Akin to President Tsai Ing-wen, Lai too has grave challenges at hand. This includes how to counter mainland China's unswerving offensive aimed at isolating the democratic island nation diplomatically. Beijing does this through a belligerent diplomatic campaign to ensure that Taiwan's official foreign ties with the few remaining nations get snapped too.

More alarmingly, China's clampdown on Taiwanese sovereignty not only continues unabated but has also reached distressing levels. This includes firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan's main island, dispatching fighter jets, and undertaking dozens of naval patrols during encirclement drills around the island. There has also been an unprecedented increase in the number of Chinese aircraft entering Taiwan's airspace since 2022.

A Chinese warship fires toward the shore during a military exercise near Fuzhou, China's Fujian Province, near Taiwan's Matsu Islands, April 8, 2023. (©Reuters via Kyodo)

Challenges Ahead

Beijing, very apparently, was unwilling to deal with Tsai Ing-wen. Its approach towards Lai is expected to be far worse. The DPP has encountered stiff opposition from mainland China. Beijing is known to have blocked almost all channels of institutionalized official communication since 2016, despite perpetual efforts by Taipei to reopen them. This situation is unlikely to change. Beijing's rhetoric towards Lai is expected to be far more hostile in comparison to Tsai. 

Lai's running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, was elected as Taiwan's new vice president. Beijing openly loathes him and has labeled him a "diehard secessionist."

The very reason why Lai Ching-te, a former practicing doctor from a poor mining family, was propelled into Taiwanese politics, should be revisited. It was because of the military cross-Strait crisis in 1996. China fired missiles into waters off Taiwan's coast and held live-fire exercises to intimidate voters ahead of the island's first free presidential election. For thousands of democracy-loving Taiwanese, including Lai, it became a defining moment that changed the course of their professions, purpose, and lives.

Now, 27 years later, tensions across the Taiwan Strait are at their highest. Beijing is ramping up militarily to seize Taiwan by force if necessary. During his October 2022 speech at the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping reaffirmed his commitment to the PLA's 2027 milestone for modernization. If realized, this breakthrough capability could enable the PLA to become a more credible and game-changing military tool for the CCP's ultimate political goal — Taiwan's "reunification."


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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