In a 2024 full of electoral appointments, the Taiwan presidential elections, which will be held on January 13, are among the most anticipated given the island’s central role in the confrontation between the superpowers, America and China.
There are three contenders: the current vice president, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the mayor of Taipei, Hou You-ih, of the Guomindang (nationalist party), and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which was born from a split in the DPP.
Not surprisingly, relations with China led by President Xi Jinping are at the center of the debate. Lai leads by a few points over Hou in the polls, while Ko appears to be trailing. Entrepreneur Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn, which is the manufacturer of iPhones in China, had announced his intention to run as an independent candidate but gave up and withdrew from the competition.
After the elections, the situation in the Taiwan Strait will continue to float in the limbo created by the international recognition of “only one” China, that is, the one with Beijing as its capital, and by Taiwan’s refusal to formally declare its de facto independence. Nonetheless, the world is watching the elections with bated breath, awaiting an indication of the island’s future and the possibility of the situation getting out of hand and triggering a war between China and the United States.
In reality, the DPP was born to fight for the island’s definitive independence from China, which continues to be its perspective and its long-term objective. Guomindang is a more Chinese than Taiwanese party: it was founded in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen and later led by Chiang Kai-shek, and its long-term goal is unification with the People’s Republic and the victory of the government of this imaginary Unified China. As for the TPP, its leader and founder Ko has not spoken out clearly on relations with the People’s Republic of China, preferring to attack his opponents with more concrete arguments related to the island’s government.
Strategic objectives aside, all three parties are in favor of maintaining the status quo in the near future.
Only a handful of second-tier countries have recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name), while most countries around the world – including Italy – have trade offices in Taivan’s capital, Taipei, which act as de facto embassies.
However, it should be emphasized that in recent years the political weight of the island has significantly increased, and its international relations have intensified. In particular, its ties with the USA have been strengthened, in a process that culminated in the visit of the US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in August 2022. The USA has also supplied the Taiwanese army with billions of dollars in armaments, making it capable of giving a possible Chinese attack some difficulty. American warships and submarines also often travel to the Taiwan Strait from their bases in Japan and the island of Guam.
According to some observers, the conquest of Taiwan, with a military attack if necessary, is part of the indispensable objectives of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In his New Year’s speech, Xi stated that “reunification” is a “historical necessity”.
Despite the apocalyptic predictions of the “experts”, it seems possible to say that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan can be ruled out, at least in the near term. The are many reasons: first and foremost is the presence of the American Seventh Fleet, technologically more advanced than the Chinese Navy, in the Pacific. Then there are China’s economic difficulties; the failure of Russia’s initial attack on Ukraine (which according to the Kremlin’s plans would have been conquered in a few days); the difficulties of attacking an island, an action which would involve a series of simultaneous landings; the strengthening of Taiwan’s military defenses; and not least among the reasons, the most recent polls according to which 66 percent of the population identifies as simply “Taiwanese”, 28 percent as “Taiwanese and Chinese” and only four percent as “Chinese”. In other words, the invasion would have to face an almost entirely hostile population.
The war for Taiwan would certainly involve Japan and probably South Korea and could see other regional US allies enter the field.
The probable defeat of the People’s Liberation Army would have dramatic consequences for the Beijing regime.
We must not forget the fact that Taiwan is the world’s leading producer of semiconductors, an indispensable element in the production of electronic equipment for audio and video, telecommunications, the management of aerospace aircraft, IT tools, robotics and for other leading industrial sectors. Thus, an interruption in production would be a serious problem for the international economy, as well as for China.
Lai’s probable victory in the presidential elections will lead to an intensification of the war of words between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait but is unlikely to cause a real war. If the Guomindang party prevails, there will be an expansion of cultural relations and a recovery of tourism between the two shores, but it is clear that “re-unification” would remain a distant objective for a very distant time.
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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