The citizens of Taiwan went to the polls in January to elect a new president and parliament. The stakes were, literally, existential — with Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, who also led Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office from 2013-18, having declared that the elections presented “important choices between the prospects for peace and war, prosperity and decline.” The eventual winner in the presidential race — the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Lai Ching-te — beat Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and Hou Yu-ih of the Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang, or KMT). Given the anti-mainland policies of the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen (who, like Lai Ching-te, is a member of the DPP), conventional wisdom holds that Taiwan’s new president will continue a policy line of de facto independence from China that has pushed the two nations to the brink of war. But a closer look shows that the elections have set Taiwan on a very difficult path, where its new president will have to deal with deeply entrenched Chinese intransigence and the probability of domestic political infighting — in what will likely prove four difficult years of governance.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Taiwanese elections were the numbers. While the DPP’s Lai Ching-te defeated his two opponents, he did so with only 40% of the popular vote. Moreover, the DPP loses control of the parliament, losing 11 seats for a total of 51, one less than the KMT. The TPP emerged with eight seats, giving a potential KMT-TPP alliance control of Taiwan’s legislative agenda over the next four years. Lai’s less than overwhelming victory seems to have somewhat mollified the mood in mainland China, where senior Chinese government officials took a “glass half-empty” approach when assessing the DPP’s showing in the presidential race and its loss of parliamentary control. A statement by Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion” in Taiwan, suggesting that China will likely focus on creating domestic political roadblocks to any move toward Taiwanese independence, as opposed to preparing for war.
While the US government officially took no public position in the Taiwan election, Lai’s victory was cause for a sigh of relief among Democrats and Republicans alike, given their common embrace of the notion of Taiwan’s de facto political separation from China — notwithstanding the US government’s official “One China” policy and a recent statement from President Joe Biden that the US does not support Taiwan’s independence. In a move that China has traditionally viewed as a flagrant violation of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, the Republican Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, announced that he would ask the Republican chairs of “relevant” committees to visit Taiwan once Lai is inaugurated in May .
Johnson’s announcement did not stop Congressman Ami Bera, the Democratic ranking member of the US House of Representatives subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific, from scheduling a visit to Taiwan at the end of January, where he will be joined by the co-chairs of the congressional Taiwan caucus, Andy Barr and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans. Congressman Mike Gallagher, a Republican who chairs the US House select committee on strategic competition between the US and the Chinese Communist Party, is expected to travel to Taiwan sometime after Bera’s delegation.
The Chinese government has long taken umbrage over US congressional delegations to Taiwan, since it implies the kind of connectivity that can only exist between the governments of two sovereign states. Indeed, a visit by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August 2022 triggered a Chinese military response that has since largely defined US-Chinese relations over Taiwan.
The fear of war is not overblown. China has built up its military forces in and around Taiwan since the autumn of 2022, and the Chinese government has made a series of public pronouncements regarding its readiness to intervene militarily if Taiwan were to make any discernible move toward independence. But while the planned visits to Taiwan by US congressional delegations will likely be strongly condemned by China, they won’t generate the same level of geopolitical fear for the Chinese government as those in the past.
While Pelosi drew the ire of the Chinese government when she praised Taiwan as one of the “freest societies of the world” during an address to the Taiwanese parliament, no such remarks will be made by any of the congressional delegations headed toward Taiwan in the coming days and weeks. The main reason is Taiwanese domestic politics. When Pelosi spoke before the Taiwanese parliament, the DPP had a majority of 62 seats. In the aftermath of the Jan. 13 election, the DPP no longer holds the lever of legislative power. That has been transferred to the KMT-TPP collective.
Trade Over Conflict
Notably, the US congressional delegations have not at present scheduled any meetings with either of those two opposition parties. The main reason is the incompatibility of the legislative agendas. While the US congressional delegations will be seeking to promote policies linked to the past — and designed to foster the notion of Taiwanese independence — the KMT and TPP are committed to reviving the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), a treaty signed between China and Taiwan in June 2013. The agreement — which aimed to liberalize trade between the two economies in service industries such as banking, healthcare, tourism, film, telecommunications and publishing — was never ratified by the Taiwanese legislature, and was cast aside when the DPP came to power in 2016.
The KMT and TPP’s expected focus on a revival of the CSSTA will set in motion an anticipated policy clash with Lai over trade priorities, with the president-elect expected to continue the trade policies of his predecessor. These emphasized the US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade, which was signed into force in May 2023 — after the Biden administration excluded Taiwan from its larger pan-Asian trade initiative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. But the KMT’s priorities are improved economic relations between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, and if it can garner the support of the TPP, it should be able to promote its initiatives while stymying those of the president-elect.
The domestic political reality of postelection Taiwan has significantly altered the geopolitical landscape of the region, shifting the focus away from military confrontation and toward larger economic questions driven by competing legislative agendas. The Biden administration and its congressional allies will face an uphill battle trying to bring Taiwan into alignment with a more aggressive posture vis-a-vis China. And while China will not forget its past practice of flexing military muscle as a reminder of the consequences of Taiwan crossing a red line on independence, the focus over the next four years will be to prioritize trade over conflict in defining the two countries’ relationship.
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.