Implications for the Taiwan Elections

Scott L. Kastner is a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He graduated from Cornell University and received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego. His books include Political Conflict and Economic Interdependence across the Taiwan Strait and Beyond (Stanford University Press, 2009); China’s Strategic Multilateralism: Investing in Global Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2019; with Margaret Pearson and Chad Rector); and War and Peace in the Taiwan Strait (Columbia University Press, 2022). His articles have appeared in journals such as International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and China Quarterly.
Chumnan (Jim) Sangsvang '26 interviewed Dr. Scott Kastner on October 6, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Scott Kastner. 

The Sunflower Movement helped the Democratic Progressive Party and Tsai Ing-wen win the 2016 presidential election and many believe China's crackdown on Hong Kong contributed to President Tsai’s reelection in 2020. How important are cross strait relations for the January 2024 elections?

They are very important for this election and always loom large as an important issue. Part of this is just because Taiwan’s relationship with China is an existential issue, especially the military threat that exists. But more generally, there are many issues that relate to cross strait relations, like views on final status issues. Do you support ultimate Taiwan independence? Do you support unification as a long-term solution? Moreover, views on Taiwanese identity tend to be closely correlated with voting behavior as well as with party identification. So cross strait relations are always going to be in the back of voters' minds when they go to the polls in presidential elections. For this year's election, it seems on the surface like the DPP should be quite vulnerable. In a way, it's a weird election, because the opposition is fractured. There's talk about trying to coordinate with a unity ticket, but whether they'll get that is a different question. In that kind of a world, it would be a much more competitive election. But no matter how you slice it, if you just look at the state of play right now, it seems like the DPP should be vulnerable. You have a pretty sluggish economy, voters tend to get tired of the same party after it's been in power for a long time. The cross strait relationship has been really bad. You've had growing tensions, including an inability to have dialogue with China. The KMT did well in the local elections last year. The DPP isn’t especially popular right now and President Tsai’s popularity is down from her high point. So you would expect that, all else being equal, that there would be opportunities for the KMT or another party to win in this election. But the nature of the cross strait relationship helps to counteract that. Part of the issue here is that it's just really hard for the other parties to adopt policy stances that are more compelling on cross strait issues, given the nature of Xi Jinping’s China. The KMT has this brand of being the relatively pro-China party, which causes difficulties, given the nature of Xi Jinping’s government and China’s use of the military as a coercive instrument in the Taiwan Strait. Ko Wen-je, the head of the TPP, tries to sidestep this issue in a way. He has criticized the DPP for saying no to things like the 1992 Consensus. He talks about the need for negotiations with China. But it is unclear how he can get there. He hasn't put a concrete proposal on the table that can convince voters that Beijing would actually accept a dialogue with him. Therefore, in this kind of environment, as long as the DPP can convince voters that it's not going to do something dramatic that is going to unnecessarily provoke China, it holds the upper hand. That's the image that Lai has been trying to project with regard to the cross strait relationship.

In addition to cross strait relations, what other issues play a significant role in shaping the campaigns of the presidential candidates?

There are the usual issues. First, the economy is not great; growth is pretty slow. I saw a report that it's only supposed to be about 1.6% this year. So the candidates are trying to signal competence regarding the economy. Ko was just in California, visiting Silicon Valley and meeting with companies and talking about finding ways for Taiwan's innovation industries to be able to link up with Silicon Valley. Hou was also in Silicon Valley recently promoting linkages between Taiwan's innovation economy and Silicon Valley. Lai has emphasized that he's going to invest in startups in innovation industries. Second, there has also been some positioning on social issues, like health care. Hou has promised to increase health care spending. Ko and Lai are both former doctors, and they have tried to emphasize their competence on this issue. Ko has talked about increasing long- term care funding while Lai has talked about reforming how the money is being spent. For example, Lai recently talked about more investments in cancer treatments. Third, corruption is always an issue. The KMT has tried to make a case that the DPP has governed in a corrupt way. Ko in particular has tried to emphasize that he will be the candidate who will bring a technocratic competence to governance. These are all salient issues, but again, I still think that the cross strait issue looms over all of this.

Lai Ching-te, the DPP’s candidate and current Vice President visited the United States in August, a visit that Beijing saw as antagonistic. What was the motivation for Lai’s visit? And how did it shape the perceptions about the kind of president Lai would make if elected?

First of all, it was a stopover. He stopped over on both ends of a trip to Paraguay, one of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. That was the main reason for his trip, to attend a presidential inauguration in Paraguay. So why stop over in the US? I would speculate that Lai wanted to broadcast an image of doing what would be expected of a Taiwanese president going to a diplomatic ally in Latin America. Just to provide a little bit of context, even though this got a lot of media attention and Beijing was very critical of Lai for stopping over in the US, this has been pretty routine for some time for Taiwan's presidents. Taiwan's presidents regularly stop in the US while traveling to diplomatic allies in Latin America. I believe that during her first term in office, Tsai’s stopovers in the US occurred at about the same rate as during the Ma presidency. So the basic norms haven't really changed. You could make the case that Tsai’s visits have been more high profile since she has done things like giving a speech at the Reagan Library, or visiting NASA facilities during one of her trips to Houston, whereas Ma tended to be more low-key on his trips. But in general, stopovers in the US have been an established routine going back a long time, including during the Chen Shui-bian administration. So, first and foremost, Lai was trying to appear presidential in doing this. It is also important to emphasize that Lai went out of his way to make sure that he didn't make the stopovers appear overly provocative. When he talked about this trip, he mostly emphasized the trip to Paraguay. He was signaling to a domestic audience in Taiwan that he would be a responsible president and wouldn't take unnecessary risks. At the same time, he would stand up for Taiwan by insisting on continuing to do what Taiwan’s presidents have been doing for a long time. But he wasn't going to do it in a way that was unnecessarily provocative. To a lesser extent, Lai was also signaling to the US in this regard. He met with some officials and I assume he communicated a message of continued pragmatism. 

China is attempting to discourage voters from electing Vice President Lai. Do you think China can impact these elections through information or disinformation campaigns?

I'm not an expert on disinformation campaigns. Certainly, China has flooded Taiwan with a lot of misinformation or disinformation. It's all over social media and also gets into regular media. It's clearly a big problem in Taiwan and globally—and not just from China, obviously. Still, I'm skeptical about how much it actually influences whom people vote for.  For example, the people who buy into some of the narratives that you see, like this false theory apparently floating around that recent Taiwan military exercises were training exercises for the Taiwan government to flee in the event of a Chinese attack, I find it hard to believe that someone who is thinking about voting for Lai would buy into this kind of an argument. That said, disinformation could contribute to deeper polarization, like in the U.S. You get echo chambers such that people read stuff that confirms and deepens pre-existing beliefs. It makes it harder for people on opposite ends of the political spectrum to find common ground.  

With this election occurring during a time of high tensions across the South China Sea, will the next president, regardless of who wins, feel pressure to pick a side in the looming power struggle between China and the US? Or do you expect Taiwan to continue a balancing act?

My view on this is that the more adversarial the US-China relationship becomes, the harder it is for Taiwan to move in a way that's seen as accommodating in its approach to China because it risks potentially alienating the US. Those risks are really big, and so there's a strong incentive for Taiwan to continue a balancing act. Taiwanese leaders certainly don't want a fully adversarial cross strait relationship; they don't want war. But, to be clear, the Tsai administration has clearly sought to strengthen the US-Taiwan security relationship and this is one of Beijing's biggest irritations about Tsai. Taiwan is leaning toward the US side right now, with the caveat that it is less interested in the degree of competition that some in Washington are interested in. Regardless of who's in power in Taiwan, though, as long as the US-China relationship is highly adversarial, there's going to be a limit as to how far the government can go. Indeed, both Hou and Ko have visited the US in part to reassure American officials about what their administrations would look like. They're emphasizing their commitment to Taiwan's self-defense. Moreover, it's not going to be anything like what the world was like during the Ma Ying-jeou administration. Hou Yu-ih has been explicit about this. That was a different era and we have to think about what the world looks like today. Under Ma, the US-China relationship was much more stable than now, so it wasn't as risky for Taiwan to be pursuing a détente-centered policy toward the PRC. And even then, there were people in Washington who were critical of Ma. If my memory serves me right, there were reports in the media at the time that one of the co-chairs of the Taiwan caucus in Congress threatened to quit the caucus at the time, arguing that if Ma was pursuing detente, then what was the point of the US supporting Taiwan? He seemed to be viewing Taiwan through a competition-with-China-centric lens. Now, in light of more adversarial US-China relations, it is much riskier for any Taiwanese president to push too far in the direction of accommodation with China. I think it is important to emphasize as well that the US has signaled pretty clearly that it also doesn't want a Taiwanese president to do things that would be especially provocative and would raise tensions. Lai has gone to considerable lengths to try to assuage concerns in this regard. 

With the next United States elections in 2024 around the corner, do you foresee a change in the overall working relationship that the United States and Taiwan?

If Biden is reelected, we will probably see a continuation of the existing approach to Taiwan. If the Republicans come into power, it probably means a Trump restoration.  It's hard to pin down what Trump’s approach to Taiwan would be in a second term. On the one hand, during Trump’s previous stint in office there was a lot of signaling of support for Taiwan, like when Bolton met with Taiwan's national security advisor, or when a number of high-ranking officials visited Taiwan, including Alex Azar, the Secretary for Health and Human Services. There was also the decision on the F-16 Fighters. On the other hand, it's hard to make the case that this was Trump, as opposed to others in his administration like Bolton, like Pompeo, who were clearly very hawkish on China, and very pro-Taiwan. So I think it's a little bit of a wildcard what US Taiwan policy would be in a new Trump administration with a different configuration of foreign policy advisors. And I don't think that Trump himself really cares about the issue, as suggested in the Bolton memoir. On the other hand, why pick a fight with most Republicans who are very hawkish on China, and by consequence, pro-Taiwan? It's different from Ukraine, where there is a real split in the caucus. So, I think it is very hard to predict what US policy toward Taiwan would look like in a new Trump administration. 

Chumnan (Jim) Sangsvang '26Student Journalist

Yeepunchmen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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