The US relationship with China faces a test as Taiwan elects a new leader

Jan 11, 2024, 10:56 PM

FILE - Taiwan's Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, speaks in Taipei, Taiwan, A...

FILE - Taiwan's Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, speaks in Taipei, Taiwan, April 12, 2023. On Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, the island of 23 million people will choose a new president to replace Tsai Ing-wen, who has served the limit of two terms. The election has drawn high attention because Beijing is opposed to front-runner Lai Ching-te, the candidate from the governing Democratic Progressive Party, which is known for its pro-independence learnings. This has raised concerns that a Lai win could trigger a military response from the mainland.(AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

(AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington’s relationship with Beijing will face its biggest test since the leaders of the two countries met in November, as the United States seeks to keep the Taiwan Straits calm after Taiwanese v oters select a new president this weekend.

At stake is the peace and stability of the 110-mile-wide (177-kilometer-wide) strip of water between the Chinese mainland and the self-governed island. Any armed conflict could put Washington head-to-head against Beijing and disrupt the global economy.

China fears that a victory in Saturday’s election by the front-runner would be a step toward independence and has suggested to Taiwan’s voters that they could be choosing between peace and war.

Washington is prepared to work with both Taipei and Beijing to avoid miscalculations and an escalation in tensions, regardless of which presidential candidate wins, officials and observers say.

A senior White House official said the U.S. will keep channels of communication open with China and will stay in close contact with Taiwan to “reinforce both our support for Taiwan’s democratic processes and also our strong commitment to peace, stability and the status quo.” The official spoke to reporters on Thursday on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans.

President Joe Biden plans to send an unofficial delegation of former senior officials to the island shortly after the election. The U.S. has no formal ties with Taiwan and sending an official delegation would enrage Beijing, which considers the island Chinese territory.

Anticipating a “period of higher tensions” ahead, the official said the U.S. is preparing for different reactions from Beijing, depending on the election results, that may range from no response to military actions.

On Saturday, the island of 23 million people will choose a new president to replace Tsai Ing-wen, who has served the limit of two terms. The election has drawn high attention because Beijing is opposed to front-runner Lai Ching-te, the candidate from the governing Democratic Progressive Party, which is known for its pro-independence learnings. This has raised concerns that a Lai win could trigger a military response from the mainland.

Beijing has vowed to unify with Taiwan, by force if necessary. Any military action could draw in the United States, which provides Taiwan with military hardware and technology under a security pact.

Washington, while not taking sides on Taiwan’s sovereignty, opposes any unilateral change to the status quo by either side. It has shown no official preference for any candidate.

Biden, when meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November in California, stressed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits. Xi pressed Biden to support China’s peaceful reunification with the island and told him “the Taiwan question remains the most important and most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”

No matter who wins Saturday’s election, Washington will engage with the new Taiwanese government to strengthen ties and focus on deterring military aggression from Beijing, lawmakers and observers have said.

“The U.S. will exchange notes with Taiwan to preserve stability and for Taiwan to be resilient going forward,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund.

“Regardless of who wins, the American people will stand with the people of Taiwan and the vibrant, beautiful democracy of Taiwan,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois said Wednesday at a discussion hosted by Politico. “And that’s on a bipartisan basis.” He is the ranking Democrat on a House select committee regarding strategic competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party.

Republican Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky said at the same discussion that the U.S. and all of Taiwan’s political parties believe in deterrence. “We will work with whoever wins this election to reestablish and strengthen that deterrence,” Barr said.

The overwhelming support among Taiwanese for maintaining the status quo means U.S. policy would largely stay the course regardless of who wins the election, said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“No one wants to provoke a war, and the current situation is minimally acceptable to almost everyone, whether in Taiwan, mainland China, or the United States,” Kennedy said.

All of Taiwan’s presidential candidates have come to see a solid relationship with the U.S. as strong deterrence against a hostile takeover of the island by Beijing, said Rorry Daniels, managing director of the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute.

If elected, Lai is unlikely to rock the boat by taking drastic steps toward statehood, as his party has proved to be prudent and pragmatic under Tsai, observers say.

“Tsai has built a positive image in Washington,” said John Dotson of the Washington-based think tank Global Taiwan Institute. “She’s turned out to be very moderate in office.”

While Tsai has infuriated Beijing by refusing to acknowledge Taiwan as part of China, she also has refrained from moving toward declaring independence. Lai would be expected to follow in her footsteps. Washington would likely see a Lai presidency as a “third Tsai term,” Dotson said.

But a Lai win could trigger angry responses from Beijing, including military exercises near the island. Experts say Beijing likely would be restrained because it is eager to protect the U.S.-China relationship, especially after the Biden-Xi meeting in November.

The challenge for Taipei and for Washington would be to manage Beijing’s anxiety that Taiwan could be “creeping into independence,” said Daniels of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Lai is closely trailed by Hou Yu-ih, the candidate from the opposition Kuomintang party. Beijing is accused of waging an influence campaign in favor of Hou, whose party sees Taiwan as part of China, although not necessarily under Beijing’s rule. Yet a Kuomintang victory would not upend U.S. policy, given that popular opinion on the island overwhelmingly favors the status quo, observers say.

Should Hou be elected, Washington, which has a history of working with the Kuomintang, would be prepared to engage with him to continue strengthening U.S-.Taiwan relations, and any easing in cross-strait tensions that would come with his election could allow the U.S. to focus on other issues, said Brian Hart, a fellow of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A warmer cross-strait relationship could bring new complexities to U.S.-China relations. “There will be more to coordinate,” Daniels said. But as Beijing would likely put pressure on a Kuomintang government to move toward reunification, Washington could help Hou manage that pressure, she said.

The third candidate, Ko Wen-je of the newly minted Taiwan People’s Party, could be the biggest challenge for Washington if he were to be elected. His party has yet to be tested and build a relationship with Washington, but observers note that Ko has expressed interest in working with the U.S.

“The Biden administration has gone out of its way to have no preference,” Hart said. “There’s an opportunity regardless who wins. The U.S. is truly not trying to weigh in on this.”

“From the U.S. perspective, what we want Taiwan to do at a higher degree is to invest in its defense, to deter China’s aggression,” Hart said.

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The US relationship with China faces a test as Taiwan elects a new leader