SEOUL, South Korea – A potentially significant partnership between two Taiwanese opposition parties to challenge the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has faltered – at least for now.
The democratic island of Taiwan, located near China and serving as a crucial hub in the global high-tech supply chain, is preparing for its presidential election on January 13. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, who is concluding her second term, is constitutionally ineligible to run for a third term.
The leading candidate for the presidency from the DPP is Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, who currently holds around 32% in recent polls. He is known for his tough stance against China.
The two opposition parties vying for the presidency are considered to be more conciliatory towards Beijing. Mr. Lai’s main rivals are each polling at around 22%, indicating a possible victory for Lai unless they unite.
An announcement was made on Wednesday about a collaboration between Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) for a joint campaign.
According to reports from Taipei media Taiwan News, the two opposition leaders were not able to reach an agreement on polling methodologies to determine the presidential candidate on Saturday.
Potential candidates must register their candidacies by November 24 at the latest, leaving Mr. Ko and Mr. Hou six days to find a compromise.
U.S. united on Taiwan, Taiwanese divided
Taiwan holds significant importance in U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, with Washington deeply concerned about potential Chinese efforts to take control of the democratic island.
On the security front, ongoing actions by U.S. forces and their allies to establish defenses in the northern Philippines and in Japan’s southern islands are aimed at preventing China’s navy from blockading or encircling Taiwan.
Economically, Taiwan plays a critical role in the supply chain for advanced semiconductors. Washington views these chips as crucial to maintaining an edge over China in high-tech competition.
In Washington, taking a tough stance against China is one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans find common ground.
However, the people of Taiwan are divided.
“Lai’s support primarily comes from the more radical faction of the DPP, which favors a more assertive approach to Taiwan’s self-determination and national sovereignty,” as per the Asia Society Policy Institute. The KMT’s Hou has criticized Lai as “reckless” for his stance.
The TPP’s Mr. Ko is perceived to be more moderate but has suggested building a bridge between one of Taiwan’s outlying islands and the nearby Chinese mainland.
Voters are focused on a range of domestic issues such as stagnant wage growth, a sluggish economy, energy security, and affordable housing for the younger generation.
In these areas, the two-term government is seen to have fallen short. Mr. Koh is particularly popular among the youth, who view the DPP as the establishment and are uninterested in the increasingly traditional KMT.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and the broader world are closely monitoring the election due to the relations across the Taiwan Strait. Chinese strategy towards Taiwan is the subject of intense debate.
Several U.S. security figures, citing the buildup of Chinese forces, particularly naval, believe that China is amassing the capabilities and the intent to attack the island.
They highlight China’s aggressive maneuvers by naval and air assets around Taiwan, which have significantly increased since U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in 2022, greatly angering Beijing.
On the other hand, some argue that Beijing, which has not engaged in a hot war since 1979, has a regional strategy of incremental advances, from the Himalayas to the South and East China Seas. This strategy focuses on gradual gains rather than open conflict, resembling more of a hybrid war.
At sea, it deploys underpowered vessels like the Coast Guard and “maritime militias,” rather than its main fleet, into tense waters. In the air, it conducts probing and aggressive maneuvers but refrains from engaging in combat.
Western defense industry officials have expressed frustration with Taipei, stating that it is unwilling to take essential steps to defend itself.
They also mention the country’s short conscription period of just one year and its refusal to establish a militia. Militias played a crucial role in the defense of northern Ukraine in 2022.
“Any complacency or nonchalance on the part of the Taiwanese is perhaps due to reassurances,” stated Alexander Neill, a regional defense expert with the Pacific Forum.
“The U.S. is obligated to provide sufficient capability to defend Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.”
Despite President Joe Biden’s clear statement that the U.S. would defend Taiwan, Washington has traditionally been reluctant to allow Taiwan to acquire top-of-the-line military assets.
“The DPP was constantly lobbying for new F16 variants and they complain about receiving US cast-offs,” said Mr. Neill. “But as soon as Taiwan starts developing something that resembles a potent offensive capability, the US becomes anxious.”
For the people of Taiwan, this poses a dilemma.
“Some argue that we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by America, but in reality, we need support as we are not as powerful, similar to Israel,” expressed a Taiwanese individual who requested anonymity due to lack of permission to speak to the media. “Considering the U.S. trade war with China, we have to take sides.”
China’s severe crackdown on Hong Kong in 2019 deeply affected Taiwanese individuals. However, memories have faded, and the younger generation does not necessarily share the older generation’s distrust of Beijing.
“The situation in Hong Kong changed our perspective and made us feel more vulnerable,” added the source. “But this mindset is now diminishing.”