China threats loom over Taiwan’s crucial elections

There are growing concerns about Beijing’s efforts to shape the results by influencing public opinion

Taiwan is gearing up for important presidential and legislative elections next month. How to manage “cross-strait” relations with China is not surprisingly emerging as the critical issue.

The island first held competitive presidential elections in 1996. Democracy has proven popular with the people. In 2020, voter turnout was nearly 75%, which is high for a system with non-compulsory voting.

Yet there are concerns about Beijing’s efforts to shape the results by influencing public opinion.

One representative told me there are four parties in the running on January 13, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang (KMT), the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), and China.

President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP cannot run again due to term limits, so the party’s presidential candidate is Vice-President Lai Ching-te also known as William Lai.

The election is the DPP’s to lose. While Tsai’s approval ratings have dropped, and Lai’s ratings fell below 30% for the first time since entering the race, he is still leading the polls.

His election hopes were boosted when a negotiation between KMT and TPP to establish a unity, “pan-blue” ticket fell through.

Closer relations

In a first-past-the-post system, the winner only needs to get the most votes. Now, the “pan-blue” vote – the Kuomintang’s party color – will split between the KMT and TPP.

Still, it will be a struggle for the DPP to win a majority in the Legislative Yuan, meaning the president might have to negotiate with a potentially hostile body.

Since Tsai was first elected president in 2016, her administration has sought to prevent China from isolating Taiwan internationally, partly through forging closer relations with the United States and other regional democracies, such as Japan and Australia.

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The DPP is now concerned about China’s role in trying to shape the outcome of the election.

There is growing evidence Beijing has sought to influence Taiwanese public opinion through disinformation campaigns, particularly targeting younger audiences through TikTok.

In Taiwan, the Chinese-owned short video app is barred from government-issued devices. This makes countering disinformation challenging, especially when it spreads to more popular social media sites and traditional media.

For example, a Taiwanese newspaper, United Daily News, published a story based on supposedly leaked government meeting minutes that the US had asked Taiwan to make biological weapons at a lab run by its defense ministry.

The minutes, however, contained official-sounding phrases that are used in China, not in Taiwan.

Gray zone

At a recent La Trobe University event, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, also expressed concern about China’s “gray zone tactics.”

They include the use of cognitive and cyber warfare, non-military assets like fishing vessels and the coastguard, as well as economic coercion, to pressure Taiwan and regional countries.

The DPP’s platform is centered on building Taipei’s ability to militarily deter and defend against a potential Chinese invasion, strengthening international partnerships and resisting attempts by Beijing to subordinate Taiwan.

In contrast, the KMT views the current state of tense cross-strait relations as a consequence of DPP policies.

In dealing with China and regional security more broadly, the KMT presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, has proposed a “three Ds” strategy: deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation. He said Taiwan needs to resume cross-strait interaction in a “low-level and stable” way.

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The KMT argues that DPP policies are escalating tensions.

They also contend the DPP cannot maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing, which is needed to buy time and stabilize cross-strait relations, especially as Taiwan waits for important military capabilities to arrive over the next three years.

According to one CIA report, 2027 is a critical year because Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered the military to be ready by then to invade the island.

Instead, the KMT argues it can lower the temperature and reduce risk. Hou has said that “there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” if the KMT is elected.

The DPP views this as an oversimplified “war” versus “peace” narrative. Lai said the presidential election is a choice between “democracy and autocracy.”

Potential conflict

The TPP’s candidate, Ko Wen-je, meanwhile, has focused on treading a middle path between the two other parties. Its representatives argue the DPP is too hostile and hawkish on China, while the KMT gives the impression they are too submissive.

Policy-wise, the TPP promises to keep communication channels with Beijing open, viewing the current suspension in high-level talks as unhelpful. While broadly “pan-blue” in nature, its position is that younger voters do not like the KMT.

While Taiwanese people are concerned about potential conflict – one poll finds more than 80% believe the China threat is worsening – prospects for peace and stability are also affecting the island’s international business and investment outlook.

This has consequences for Taiwan’s economic interests, as well as China’s and the rest of the world. Like many other economies in the region, China is the island’s largest trading partner, accounting for a quarter of total trade in 2021.

“De-risking” by diversifying the economy and providing economic security and supply chain stability is viewed as critical by the current government. As is encouraging businesses to see the security imperative in diversifying away from China.

Taiwan keeps flying the flag for democracy. Photo: Flickr

The DPP is also concerned about China’s use of economic activities to affect political outcomes, targeting business people and lower-level political figures and using social, cultural, and religious exchanges to influence public opinion in Taiwan.

Yet, some of these public diplomacy activities are not unusual with Taiwan providing opportunities for similar exchanges.

In contrast to the DPP, the KMT argues it is not so easy to “decouple” the economy from China.

There are still strong business links across the Taiwan Strait, and a democratic country cannot force businesses to pull out of China, particularly if their main competition comes from South Korea or Japan.

Young voters

The TPP is hoping to capitalize on young voters’ dissatisfaction with the DPP and KMT by focusing on domestic issues such as cost of living, income stagnation, and housing affordability.

While adopting a pragmatic relationship with Beijing is important given the economic realities, the TPP still views the US as a critical partner for Taiwan.

Ultimately, the DPP advocates for clarity in cross-strait relations. The KMT finds value in maintaining an ambiguous and flexible stance. The relatively new TPP, meanwhile, positions itself somewhere in the middle.

Rebecca Strating is the Director of La Trobe Asia and an Associate Professor at La Trobe University in Australia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.