AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
In January of 2024, Taiwanese voters will go to the polls to choose between the ruling anti-Beijing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pro-Mainland KMT. Although still nearly a year away, the lead up to the election and debate surrounding it is already sparking discussions about the democratic future of Taiwan.
Whether or not the People’s Republic of China is about to attack Taiwan is the question on everyone’s lips in Washington. A top Air Force General sent a memo to his officers last month warning “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me will fight in 2025.”
“I hope he’s wrong as well. I think he’s right, though, unfortunately,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, added in response to the memo by General Mike Minihan, the head of the air mobility command. With a Chinese balloon being downed over North America, and Chinese aircraft entering Taiwanese airspace in ever greater numbers, it can seem that we may not even make it to 2025.
This backdrop sets the stage for Taiwan’s high-stakes election, which seems likely to turn into a referendum on whether Taiwan will pursue independence outright, even at the cost of conflict with China, or whether it will avoid conflict, even if it means subordination to the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. The CCP would be likely to welcome a KMT victory as an embrace of Taiwan’s Chinese identity. If, however, the DPP wins again, Xi Jinping and the CCP are likely to perceive it in much the same way Putin perceived the victory of pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists in the Ukraine: as an effort by Western-backed elements to reject their historic identity. But Xi, like Putin in Ukraine, is taking actions that will not ensure he wins the political contest in Taiwan, but are rather more likely to ensure he loses. Like in Ukraine, that political loss may then become a “justification” for military conflict.
The leading candidate for the DPP is Vice President Lai Ching-te, who describes himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence.” The Financial Times reported in January that U.S. officials were concerned by his pro-independence views, which may be why he has taken steps to walk them back in recent weeks, remarking last month, “I would like to reiterate that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign nation and thus we do not have a need to further declare Taiwan independence.”
It is unlikely those remarks will satisfy Xi Jinping, for whom there is only one sovereign and independent Chinese nation, and it is the one he runs. For Xi, who comes from a system where politics represent not the preference of individual voters but the proxy battle between powerful forces, electing a pro-independence president would not be a freely exercised choice of the Taiwanese people, but rather an act of rebellion by his own wayward subjects. Chinese history has never been kind to emperors who allow rebellion to proceed unpunished.
The perception of the Taiwan issue in the context of a rebellion gives some protection against Xi Jinping moving suddenly without pretext against Taiwan, even as it almost assures he will move against Taiwan if he perceives Taiwan as defying him. In practice, that means Xi will likely invest heavily in trying to help the KMT win the 2024 elections, both as an alternative to the use of force if it succeeds, and to demonstrate at home and abroad he tried everything before being “forced” to resort to military means. China’s current military moves seem more in-line with a pattern of intimidation than a prelude to an invasion.
Nonetheless, military aggression also places the United States in a difficult position. Contrary to what Beijing alleges, Taiwan’s desire to break with Beijing is not the result of American subversion, any more than Ukrainians’ desire not to be ruled from Moscow is the product of a CIA plot. U.S. military planning is handicapped by the need to allow the Taiwanese to make a momentous decision about their own future, with potentially enormous costs, while also preparing for the contingency where the country will need to be defended. Multiple planners have expressed frustration with the slowness with which the Taiwanese are making military preparations, and this is justified from an American perspective. But it ignores the deep fissures that do exist on the island, and how they will be playing out in an election.
For one thing, whatever doubts Washington has about Lai and the DPP, the KMT has responded to defeats by turning themselves into apologists for Beijing. The former KMT Chairwoman toured Xinjiang at the request of the CCP and praised Beijing’s security policies in 2022 even as China was threatening military action over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Just this past week, a 12-member delegation of KMT officials led by the party’s Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia visited Beijing, meeting with senior officials to pledge to end tensions if they took power. Hsia had previously led a KMT delegation to meet with CCP leaders in August 2022 as a counter to Pelosi’s visit. This has been echoed by Chinese state media, with the People’s Daily running an op-ed two-weeks ago stating that the KMT “must make the right choice, now or never,” alleging that the DPP holds power with the support of the United States, and that the only way to return to power is for the KMT to embrace the full backing of the CCP.
It may at first seem odd that the Kuomintang, the party which under Chiang Kai-Shek fought a decades-long civil war against Mao Zedong and the CCP, would suddenly be perceived as pro-Communist. But in a historical context it makes perfect sense. The Kuomintang were a Chinese nationalist party, tracing their roots to Sun Yat-Sen, whom the CCP also considers a forefather. The Kuomintang did not seek to rule Taiwan or even China, but to be a party for all Chinese, and local organs of the party were set up overseas in places such as the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. The Malay Chinese Association, until recently the major Chinese political party in Malaysia, began as the local wing of the KMT.
The KMT and its leaders arrived in Taiwan in 1949 as exiles. They had no connections to the island which had been under Japanese rule since 1945, and rapidly created a river of blood with the locals through a violent series of repressions. Popular policies such as land reform only partially mitigated this impression, and Taiwan’s economic miracle under the KMT added a division between the KMT elites, many of whom were linked by family ties to Chinese communities abroad and on the mainland, and Taiwanese natives whose lives were on the island.
Domestically, this manifests in economics. The KMT is the party of the top and the bottom. At the top are the descendants of mainland exile families, many of whom turned their connections abroad into enormous wealth as the mainland opened itself up to investment in the 1980s. At the bottom are aboriginal communities and others who fear isolated from a cosmopolitan DPP.
By contrast, the DPP has come to represent those in the middle and working classes who have built lives in Taiwan. They are educated, successful, and enjoy freedom. Most importantly, they stand to lose everything if the CCP were to take over. This is a marked contrast from the KMT elites. As much of their wealth is intertwined with investments abroad, especially in the mainland, a war, even a successful one which resulted in an independent Taiwan, would see them lose almost everything. Either because the CCP would seize their assets, the mainland economy would collapse, or trade would become impossible.
The KMT does not favor political integration with the mainland per se. But because a break with the mainland would be so devastating to their elite, they are willing to concede what they can to the CCP, with the last KMT President, Ma Ying-jeou, becoming the first Taiwanese leader to meet with the leader of the PRC when he shook hands with Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015.
In a dynamic reminiscent of what took place in Ukraine during the Euromaiden protests, Ma’s meeting with Xi set off a mass protest movement. The Sunflower Movement did not force him from office, but it did storm the Taiwanese parliament and ultimately drove the KMT from power. Just as Putin’s increasing authoritarianism made pro-Russian politicians in neighboring states increasingly appear to be traitors, so too did Xi Jinping’s belligerence and actions in Hong Kong. The KMT was crushed in the 2016 elections.
Xi Jinping’s reaction was not to give the KMT latitude but to hug it ever tighter. The CCP engaged in a clumsy game of carrot and stick which would have embarrassed Putin, alternately threatening the DPP government in Taiwan with war and meeting with leading representatives of the opposition. Xi met with the Chairwoman of the KMT in 2016, along with a former vice president. This helped none of those involved, nor did fears generated by the crackdown in Hong Kong, which overshadowed the 2020 Taiwanese elections that the KMT again lost.
Xi Jinping may honestly believe that the fourth or fifth time is the charm. More likely, he knows exactly what he is doing. When the People’s Daily calls for the KMT to fully embrace its role as a pro-Beijing party, the gift is laced with arsenic. Beijing knows such a path would ensure defeat, not victory for the KMT. But perhaps that is the point. Xi Jinping may not be interested in the KMT returning to power, especially if the price is for the KMT to adopt a much more hostile attitude to Beijing. Rather he appears to want them to fully embrace the PRC so that when they lose, he will, like Putin, have a cause for war. He will have proven to the Chinese public that he tried persuasion, that the Taiwanese rejected it, and he will have no choice but to move in. In this interpretation of events, the KMT are functioning as useful idiots.
The United States too must stop vacillating about Lai, the DPP, or their views on Taiwan independence. Xi Jinping looks like he is already busy writing the script he intends to follow, and that script involves Lai winning and Xi citing that as justification for conflict. U.S. leaders should also realize that Beijing has lost interest in its own “friends” on the island, much as Putin did with Ukraine, and their purpose is to be victims who need to be rescued, not allies. If Beijing needs a pretext, it will ensure pro-independence figures win by sabotaging its own friends.
Washington should start planning for what will follow January 2024.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.