China has framed the presidential and legislative elections on January 13 as a choice between war and peace. No matter who wins Taiwan’s highly watched elections, the weapons race across the Taiwan Strait and Chinese military pressure on the island Beijing claims as its “sacred” territory are unlikely to end.
China has presented the presidential and legislative elections on January 13 as a choice between war and peace, saying that any attempt to push for Taiwan’s official independence will result in conflict. In the run-up to the election, China has concentrated its ire on Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), dismissing his appeals for dialogue as a separatist.
As the election approaches, China threatens more trade sanctions against Taiwan. Both the DPP and Taiwan’s major opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), claim that only they can keep the peace, and both have pledged to strengthen Taiwan’s fortifications and claim that only the island’s people can decide its destiny.
The KMT has historically supported tight connections with China, while it denies being pro-Beijing. Wang Zaixi, a retired Chinese army major general who served as deputy head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office between 2000 and 2006, was reported last month in China’s Global Times newspaper as calling DPP leader Lai a “extremist” supporter of independence.
“If he is elected, a military clash across the Taiwan Strait cannot be ruled out.” “We must be fully aware of this,” Wang stated.
Such an outcome may have serious geopolitical and economic consequences, pitting China against the US – the world’s two greatest military powers – while also blocking critical shipping lanes and disrupting semiconductor and commodities supply chains. “I believe they will take more hawkish actions to try to warn the new president over his future policies towards China,” former Taiwan military leader Admiral Lee Hsi-ming told Reuters, referring to Beijing.
Western security authorities are attempting to determine how serious China is about a military reaction to the election results.
According to one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the media, Beijing may wait and see, with any strong reaction coming after May 20, when the incoming president takes office and delivers an inauguration speech. If the DPP wins the presidency but loses its parliamentary majority, China’s reaction may be moderated because the DPP’s power to push legislation will be weakened, according to the Western diplomat.
China’s defence ministry, which has chastised Taiwan’s administration for purposefully “hyping up” a Chinese military threat for political gain, did not respond to a request for comment. Sun Li-fang, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s defence ministry, told reporters that Taiwan’s judgement of China’s moves would not be influenced by whether or not an election was held.
“We’ll look at the signs and what the enemy is up to as a basis for our judgement,” he went on to say. Following a meeting of Chinese and US leaders in San Francisco in November, President Xi Jinping reportedly told President Joe Biden that, while Taiwan is the most “dangerous” bilateral issue, China is not planning an invasion of Taiwan.
However, in the year and a half after the previous Taiwan presidential election in 2020, China has engaged in unprecedented levels of military action in the Taiwan Strait, including two rounds of large war simulations near the island. Chinese jets now routinely breach the strait’s unofficial median line, attempting to wear down Taiwan’s vastly smaller air force by forcing it to continually scramble.
Some commentators believe Taiwan’s contiguous zone, which extends 24 nautical miles (44 kilometres) off its shore, will be increasingly challenged by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the future years. Taiwan is hardening its defences. A second Western security official stated that China is well aware that every year they wait to “resolve the Taiwan problem,” it provides Taipei another opportunity to strengthen its defences.
“That is not good for the PLA,” added the official.
Defence has received a lot of attention on the campaign trail. The DPP has regularly mentioned Taiwan’s indigenous submarine, while other weapons initiatives, including as drones, are being built. The KMT advocates for the “3Ds”: deterrent, dialogue, and de-escalation. Jaw Shaw-kong, the KMT’s vice presidential candidate, stated last month that Taiwan should increase missile manufacturing to demonstrate its ability to strike into China in the case of war, but he also stated that China should allow in Taiwanese military observers as a gesture of goodwill and to reduce tensions. Whoever wins, Taiwan has a large backlog of weapons orders from the United States.
Taiwan will get powerful US weapons in the next years, including F-16V fighter jets, M-1A tanks, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS.
While the PLA is undoubtedly a superior military power, recent purges in the PLA that have resulted in the deaths of generals in the Rocket Force, navy, and air force, as well as a former defence minister, may reduce the likelihood of conflict.
“The more problems they have, the more corruption they have, the better it is for us,” former Taiwan military leader Lee stated. “I don’t think there will be a full-scale invasion in the next few years because they have their own difficulties.” Xi has given two speeches in the last week or so in which he has emphasised the importance of “reunification” with Taiwan. On both occasions, he made no mention of deploying force, despite the fact that Beijing has never ruled out the prospect.
China could potentially use economic pressure after the election, focusing on a trade agreement negotiated in 2010 that Beijing claims Taipei violated with unfair trade obstacles. Beijing could potentially increase its influence efforts in Taiwan through its “United Front” department. “China needs to be able to lead and control the situation in Taiwan, and we do that through a variety of means, not just one,” said Wu Xinbo, a Fudan University professor in Shanghai.