The victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Lai Ching-te (William Lai), in the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election is remarkable, given that no party has previously secured a third consecutive term in office. This year’s hustings were particularly neck and neck since a relatively new outfit, Taiwan’s People’s Party, had entered the fray and turned the elections into a three-way contest.
The election is one of the most consequential in Asia due to a combination of factors. First, China considers the island a break-away province that must be united by military muscle, if necessary. Soon after coming to power, President Xi Jinping stated that the standoff over sovereignty cannot be kept in abeyance forever, signalling his intention to end the nearly seven-decade-old deadlock during his tenure. Second, the United States (US) is mandated to protect the island and supply it with defensive armaments under its domestic law. While Taiwan has long been a thorn in the side of Washington-Beijing dynamics, now due to renewed contestation between the two powers, the island has newfound salience. In light of authoritarian China’s increasing assertiveness, Taiwan’s democratic values and technological prowess have made it an important partner of America in the Indo-Pacific. Lastly, over the years, a majority of people on the island identify themselves as Taiwanese distinct from being Chinese. President-elect Lai has vociferously defended Taiwan’s sovereignty, and the DPP’s charter pledges to draw up a new constitution and declare a “Republic of Taiwan”.
In light of authoritarian China’s increasing assertiveness, Taiwan’s democratic values and technological prowess have made it an important partner of America in the Indo-Pacific.
China has upped the ante on Taiwan in recent times, raising risks of a wider regional conflict. It brought out a white paper titled ‘The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era’ in August 2022, in which it blamed the DPP’s pursuit of independence for escalating the crisis, and underscored that it could use force to unify the island. In response, Taiwan has lengthened the duration of military service, is upgrading its F-16 fighter fleet and acquiring more arms from the US. The visit of then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022 angered Beijing, which responded with military exercises close to the island. Missiles fired during the exercises landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, threatening a wider escalation that could have a bearing on stability in the region.
China, which framed the 2024 Taiwan presidential election as a choice between peace and prosperity, confrontation and economic, seethes at Lai’s win. China refuses to read the writing on the wall, as evidenced by its reaction to the electoral verdict that the DPP does not represent mainstream opinion in Taiwan. China has announced that despite the DPP victory, it looks to engage with groups on the island to realise unification.
In real terms, Lai can expect a rough ride ahead. In the run-up to the election, China used economic coercion. Early this month, China levied tariffs on some petrochemical items that had been covered under the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement — a cross-strait trade deal. China could water down the cross-strait deal or scrap it entirely. This may have a significant impact on the economy since China is Taiwan’s biggest export market. China opened a tax inquiry against Apple’s supplier, Foxconn, after its founder Terry Gou announced his intention to be in the running for Taiwan’s president’s office. In the future, more businesspeople from the island may get caught in Beijing’s crosshairs. Beijing sought to meddle in the election process with mysterious balloons flying over the island, and smear videos on DPP politicians, which Lai describes as “most serious” interference. One can expect China to hobble Lai further.
China levied tariffs on some petrochemical items that had been covered under the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement — a cross-strait trade deal. China could water down the cross-strait deal or scrap it entirely.
As Lai would look to reduce Taiwan’s reliance on China’s market, it presents an opportunity for India. When President Tsai Ing-wen won office in 2016, she sought to use Taiwan’s technological base, its cultural and educational quotient to improve regional integration, which found expression in the “New Southbound Policy”. Supplementing this approach is India’s “Act East Policy”.
In Lai’s term, India must build upon the existing framework. To start with, people-to-people exchanges are key. India can award more scholarships to Taiwanese youth who are interested in learning yoga and ayurveda. Taiwanese universities hold great potential as an educational destination for Indian students.
Centuries ago, legendary Chinese monk Xuanzang trekked to India to seek Buddhist teachings: Today, his relic lies at a temple in Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake. India and Taiwan can look at promoting a Buddhist tourism circuit encompassing the Xuanzang temple in Taiwan and pilgrimage sites in India like Bodh Gaya. Economic engagement with Taiwan may be to India’s advantage as the former looks to export critical components, not finished products, thereby not affecting the medium- and small-scale industries sector. On the technological front, India stands to benefit from collaboration with Taiwan’s Hsinchu Science Park, which was the cradle of the island’s semiconductor industry.
For long, New Delhi has kept Taiwan at bay so as not to anger China, which has reciprocated by systematically targeting Indian interests. It might be time now for India to shed these “hesitations of history” to script a bolder innings with Taiwan.
This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.
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Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...Read More +
Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme and is based out of ORFs Delhi centre. His research focusses on China specifically looking ...Read More +