Taiwan is holding a presidential election on Saturday that neighboring China has warned could mean the difference between peace and war on the island, which Beijing claims as its territory even though Taiwan has governed itself for nearly three-quarters of a century.
The election is believed to be a close race between the candidate of the incumbent party that Beijing has described as independence-minded and the candidate of the main opposition party, which is seen as standing for warmer ties with the mainland.
Voters also will be choosing members of Taiwan’s legislature following a campaign season that has focused largely on bread-and-butter domestic issue s like inflation in housing costs and the island republic’s sluggish economy.
Vice President Lai Ching-te, who also is known as William Lai, is running as the candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP. The Harvard-educated physician and politician of 25 years drew China’s ire years ago for calling himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,” though he doesn’t rule out talks with China.
The other main candidate is Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Koumintang, or KMT. His party is the heir of the government that retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war against its rival Chinese Communist Party on the mainland.
Nowadays, KMT is considered generally friendlier to China than the DPP. The current mayor of New Taipei, Hou served as the head of the island’s police force before transitioning to politics in 2010.
A third presidential candidate is Ko Wen-je of the smaller Taiwan People’s Party, which he founded in 2019. An outspoken surgeon-turned-politician, Ko, whose victory is viewed as a long shot, advocates for a middle road in relations with Beijing. He has said he would be open to holding talks with China, but his bottom line would be that Taiwan must be able to preserve its democracy and civil freedoms.
THE CHINA FACTOR
China has suggested that Taiwan could be choosing between peace and war this time, and has openly opposed the DPP for what it sees as its separatist leanings. Beijing claims sovereignty over the island and warns it would reclaim it by force if Taiwan formally claimed its independence. China has sent fighter planes and warships near the island to put teeth behind its warnings. Any armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait would disrupt the global economy and could draw in the United States.
Lai, the DPP candidate, is unlikely to declare independence. But Beijing worries the island could pursue a policy of gradual moves that solidify a de facto independence, such as education and cultural reforms that move the minds of Taiwanese people away from bonds with China. The DPP refuses to acknowledge Taiwan as part of China, which Beijing deems necessary for cross-strait conversations.
China and Taiwan are linked by trade and investment, with an estimated 1 million Taiwanese spending at least part of the year on the mainland for work, study or recreation.
THE U.S. POSITION
The U.S. takes no side on Taiwan’s statehood but insists that any differences must be resolved peacefully. It opposes any unilateral change to the status quo by either Beijing or Taipei. It also has a security pact with Taiwan to supply the island with sufficient hardware and technology to deter any armed attack from Beijing.
The U.S. also adopts a strategic ambiguity approach by which it doesn’t formally commit troops to the island to fight for Taiwan should there be a war, although President Joe Biden has several times said he would send troops to the island.
HOW DOES TAIWAN AFFECT THE U.S.-CHINA RELATIONSHIP?
Beijing calls the Taiwan issue the “core of its core interests” and a red line that mustn’t be crossed. Chinese President Xi has told Biden that it is the most sensitive issue in the countries’ bilateral relations.
Beijing demands that Washington stay away from Taiwan and refrain from supporting its independence. It has slammed Washington for sending weapons to the island and sailing warships in the Taiwan Strait, calling them the “wrong signals to Taiwan’s independence elements.”