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  • Max Tsao

Geopolitical Repercussions of Taiwan's Election: How the EU can navigate itself through the Cross-Strait relations

What Taiwan's election results mean


Taiwanese people have given a clear signal during an election that has been constantly under China’s threats. On 13 January 2024, around 14 million people in Taiwan went to the polls, and 5.5 million among them chose the DPP candidate, Lai Ching-te and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, former representative to the US. Lai Ching-te will be the next head of the state in Taiwan, in charge of managing the situation across the Taiwan Strait in the near future.


It is the first time in the island’s history that the ruling party stays in power after 8 years of term limits (with another candidate). Due to the DPP’s continuous advocacy for stable and non-confrontational development across the Strait in its last tenure, it is safe to assume that the majority of voters want to preserve the status quo.


Some may observe that the three-way race reduced the vote shares DPP used to obtain. This, however, is due to the nature of a three-way election and should not be prematurely interpreted as declining support for Taiwanese independence or the status quo. Many polls conducted in the past year suggested that the support for a possible reunification with China has faded to less than three percent and only 2.5 percent of respondents identified as “Chinese”, while the support for the status quo and “Taiwanese” identification topped the results.


DPP’s relatively poor performance in the parliamentary election, however, could be read as voters’ discontent with their undelivered promises and sporadic scandals. A legislature in which the DPP holds a minority could have significant repercussions for Taiwan's future external relations. Defence projects or procurements could meet objections from opposition parties. Moreover, for foreign countries that want to establish meaningful relations such as free trade agreements, the proposal has to pass a legislative process in a divided Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislature).


How China has been responding


For Beijing, a victory for Lai is the least favourable result, and could signify continued tensions across the Strait in the near future. Besides constant showing of force, sending fighter jets to Taiwan’s Air Space (traditionally it’s set by the medium line on the Strait), Xi’s administration also attempted to intimidate the newly elected government by persuading Taiwan’s allies to abandon formal diplomatic relations with the island briefly after the election.


Although many pundits and officials believe that the risk of war has been steadily rising (e.g. CIA Director William Burns warned about Xi’s ambition to take Taiwan by 2027 last year), the recent development aligns more with Xi’s claim from last November, when he told Biden he would unify with Taiwan but had no timetable at the moment.


In mid-February, a Chinese fishing boat was reported to have crossed the designated area in Kinmen (a Taiwan-governed island just 3 km away from PRC territory). The incident ended with the Taiwanese authority chasing the vessel and two workers on the boat falling from it and drowning. This event could have caused  a stir across the Strait, but, as it has become evident in the past months, both sides apparently want to play it low profile.

That is to say, since the election, Beijing only resorted to foreseeable measures rather than escalating the tension swiftly. Considering the aforementioned maritime issue, it is safe to say that the prolonged DPP regime may be perceived by Beijing as the antagonist in the following years. At the same time, Beijing still does not intend to directly confront Taiwan and the US-led alliance now. One can expect CCP’s typical tactics to remain until at least the end of 2024 when another consequential election takes place in the US.


How the EU should cope with the tensions


The Europeans have not given  the Cross-Strait relations sufficient attention until recently. Only after Sino-US relations deteriorated and a series of violations of the rule of law from the Chinese side took place, the EU began  to react to the situation in East Asia. The Council published its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2021; and this February, the Parliament stressed that Taiwan is not subordinate to China. All these actions suggest that the European countries are now aware of the stake in the Cross-Strait relations.


Then how can the EU promote its interest in the region? One way is to help increase Taiwan’s deterrence. A full-scale invasion or even encirclement will be devastating for the whole world. As Beijing won’t give up on the idea of forced unification, the other side could only increase its deterrence to prevent the attack. This does not mean that Europe should provide weapons; for Europe, there is a more pressing foe next door. The US and its allies have already provided Taiwan with material resources, and Europe can offer technology, knowledge, and even security guarantees (for example, clearly stating what sanctions will be employed upon Chinese invasion).


And the increasing ties could make the promises seem more realistic. Parliamentary and public diplomacy are some great methods to achieve the goal.  Those might be met with resistance from China, like in the case of Czechia’s legislators who visited Taiwan in recent years, but they are also great ways to demonstrate support for democratic countries. 


Some more pragmatic ways to improve bilateral relations are collaboration in cyberspace and economic cooperation. Both Taiwan and Europe are in pressing need for an effective strategy to fight against disinformation. As we all know, in today’s world technology can be improved with more data and samples. Europe could facilitate the exchange of ideas and information with Taiwan to withstand a more (cyber) assertive China and Russia. 


Lai’s victory itself did not provoke a war. However, the tensions persist, primarily due to Beijing’s current inability to launch immediate attacks. Nonetheless, as we have seen in the process of Russia’s invasion, all the like-minded countries should cooperate as much as possible to prevent further aggression. After all, in Europe, Taiwan, and all over the world, freedom and democracy are worth to be dedicated to.


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