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  • Charles Wu

War Less Likely after Taiwan’s 2024 Election

The result of the 2024 Taiwan general elections, and the increasing possibility of a Trump victory in the November U.S. presidential victories seem to indicate that political events of 2024 will most likely lesson the probability of conflict occurring in the Taiwan Straits.


Photo credits: Getty Images

In January 2024, Taiwan successfully held its presidential and legislative elections. The reigning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s candidate, Lai Ching-te, held on to the presidency despite garnering 2.6 million votes less than what the incumbent, Tsai Ing-Wen, received four years ago. In the legislative elections which were held concurrently, the DPP lost its current majority and won just 51 seats, compared to the opposition Kuomintang’s (KMT) 52 seats and the Taiwan People's Party’s (TPP) 8 seats.


Cross-Strait relations have largely been cold since the DPP came into power in 2016. Hence, seeing the pro-independence DPP secure a third term resulted in an adverse response from Beijing. For instance, Beijing called DPP’s President elect Lai a ‘separatist’ and a troublemaker’.


Beyond these comments, there were other actions which indicated that Beijing was irate about these election results. Less than two weeks after the election, one of Taiwan’s former diplomatic allies, Nauru, decided to sever ties with Taiwan and recognize China as its diplomatic partner. This leaves Taiwan now with only 12 diplomatic allies. Many observers, when taking into considerations the results of the election, also took a step further to suggest that an armed conflict might be closer now for several reasons, with one observer noting that Mr. Xi no longer has a reliable partner in Taiwan to negotiate unification with.


However, there is also evidence to suggest that war will be less likely after Taiwan’s 2024 election. To begin with, there is little evidence to suggest that the CCP and President Xi perceive this election to be a grave failure in its entirety. To be clear, the outcome does not pose a challenge to China’s goal of seeking unification. While the DPP will continue to govern the country, the president did not have majority support as around 60% of the electorate did not vote for him. Unlike his predecessors, DPP’s Lai Ching-te won by a plurality, not a majority. Furthermore, he is likely to be hamstrung by not having a majority in a fragmented legislature.


As some observers note, China’s strategy of ‘influencing’ the outcome of the election in Taiwan may have paid off. Now more than ever, China could work with the two opposition parties to further stifle DPP’s attempt to protect the sovereignty of Taiwan and continue to carve a distinct narrative of Taiwan’s independence. The next legislative election in 2028 provides the perfect opportunity to expand their alliance with willing legislators in the opposition. The KMT, for instance, has long been regarded as “favouring a China-leaning stance” on Cross-Strait issues.  


Beyond domestic Taiwanese politics, there are other international factors which also explain why armed conflict will be less likely in the short term. Based on the balance of military power across the Strait, China is aware that the U.S. has been actively arming and training Taiwanese forces in the past two years, and that the U.S. still holds military superiority over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). U.S. troops in Taiwan which are present there for short or long-term visits could, in effect, benefit Taiwan through a ‘tripwire effect’. To be clear, the presence of US troops and the possibility of inflicting casualties on these American military personnel changes the cost-benefit calculation for Beijing in the short term. Beijing will seek to avoid invoking a hostile response from Washington if any American troops are lost during an invasion of Taiwan.


Thus, we should expect to see more restraints by the PRC which may constrain Beijing from adopting an overtly aggressive stance. For instance, in the recent boating controversy between Taiwan and China in Kinmen Island, China did dispatch Coast Guard vessels into Taiwan’s sovereign waters, but the military was never involved, and Beijing quickly de-escalated the conflict to prevent it from spiraling out of control.


Furthermore, the strained Sino-U.S. relations, an increasing hostile American citizenry and the upcoming presidential election may discourage President Xi from making hasty military decisions in regard to Taiwan. Any misstep or miscalculation will only further marginalize China’s allies in the U.S. and give more fuel for the U.S. to pass harsher policies toward the PRC. Until now, President Biden has publicly said that he will defend Taiwan with troops in the face of an invasion by China on at least four occasions. This public declaration by an incumbent US President will also factor into Beijing’s calculation. Whether Washington does indeed put boots on the ground if an armed conflict occurs is a separate debate, but it is unlikely that Beijing will want to test this resolve by triggering an armed invasion of Taiwan.


The upcoming US election and the possibility of President Trump returning to office also make a conflict in the Taiwan Strait less likely. Some argue that China is hoping for another Trump presidency as China will benefit from another Trump term. This belief, however, does not hold up under scrutiny. It is true that China believes that Trump might abandon Taiwan due to his recent response to a question in an interview about responding to China’s military aggression toward Taiwan. Trump’s response that Taiwan is stealing American business has been interpreted as his lack of interest in upholding US security commitment to Taiwan. But the reality is that the CCP is uncertain if a Trump presidency would really be beneficial.


There are reasons which suggest that a second Trump presidency may not benefit the CCP. Despite Trump’s comments on Taiwan, it is vital to note it was during President Trump’s first term that geostrategic rivalry between the US-China sharpened and became more acute. Furthermore, there are already indications that a second Trump presidency could further deteriorate US-China relations. Comments made by Trump himself indicate that he intends to intensify the trade war with China during a second term. A second Trump presidency will neither change the trajectory of decoupling from China nor seek to give up on the Taiwan’s semiconductor industry in the short term. In effect, Taiwan will continue to maintain its economic importance for the US in the short term, which makes it less likely that the US will abandon Taiwan in the face of conflict.


Hence, these observations of CCP benefitting from a second Trump presidency due to his lack of interest in Taiwan do not account for the fact that the CCP also faces the possibility of heightened Sino-US tensions during a second Trump term. These exacerbated Sino-US tensions, in turn, may affect how the Trump administration positions itself on Taiwan. This may introduce an additional element of uncertainty and may determine how Beijing perceives the cost-benefit calculus in the face of strained Sino-US relations during a second Trump presidency.


Trump’s return to the White House may also impact Russia-US relations and Beijing must also consider the implications of these developments. Trump has already stated that he intends to withdraw US support for Ukraine and end the Russia-Ukraine war in “24 hours”. In the past, Trump has also supported and praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in public. Even a minor improvement in the US-Russia relationship may allow the U.S. to further pivot resources to the Indo-Pacific region to contain China.


In recent years, several officials, academics and observers in Taiwan and beyond have stated that the likelihood of China launching a military invasion of Taiwan has increased. However, the 2024 Taiwanese election results, combined with the possibility of a second Trump administration and the straining of Sino-US relations all point to the fact that in the short term, a military invasion of Taiwan has significant opportunity costs for Beijing. Unless China is able address those factors, lower the opportunity costs and eliminate these elements of uncertainty, a military conflict is less likely at least in the short term.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Charles K.S. Wu is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama, USA. His primary research interests fall into the intersection between International Relations and American Politics.

 



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