In early 2024, regular presidential elections will be held in Taiwan. On that island, presidential and parliamentary elections always revolve around the issue of relations with Beijing and Taiwan’s statehood. They are not just a competition for power between different political options. Because of the interest of the world powers in the relations between China and Taiwan, they have a wider international significance. The foundations of such a character of the elections were laid in the short-term period between 1945 and 1949 when the outcomes of the Second World War, the Civil War in China and the internal situation in Taiwan left consequences that are still felt today in Taiwanese politics and society and in relations between Beijing and Taipei.
Shortly after the defeat in 1945, Japan returned the island to China after fifty years of rule over Taiwan. The island did not have a particular significance for China at that time, but after the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the civil war in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, part of the army and refugees from the mainland China, a total of about 2 million people, settled on the island that then had only about 6 million inhabitants. In Beijing, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the KMT and Chiang continued to claim that the Republic of China (ROC) continued to exist despite the ongoing “communist insurgency” on the continent. The legal fiction about the continuity of the statehood of the Republic of China, founded in 1912, has continued to this day, and the upcoming presidential elections will officially be held for the institution of the President of the Republic of China, not the Republic of Taiwan.
After the arrival of the KMT, an authoritarian regime was established on the island in which the establishment of new political parties was prohibited and any idea that Taiwan should become an independent state was suppressed. At the same time, Mao was not content with winning the civil war and planned to seize Taiwan and finally get rid of the KMT and Chiang. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 prevented him from doing so, as he had to send his army to help North Korea. That war suddenly created a great interest of the Americans in Taiwan because for them the island became an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, as one American general called it. American aid to Taiwan and the bitter conflict between Chiang and Mao prevented the two sides from rapprochement in the following decades. Taiwan, or the Republic of China, represented China in the UN until the beginning of the 1970s. After more than two decades of lobbying on the international stage for the PRC to be recognized as the sole Chinese state, Taipei’s representatives were kicked out of the UN, and Beijing stepped in to take their place. In addition to the socialist countries that were on Beijing’s side, the approach of the USA to the PRC and the consequent severance of diplomatic relations in 1979 between Washington and Taipei were also important for this change. This did not mean American abandonment of Taiwan, but it was an effort to balance between the two sides in accordance with American foreign policy interests. Washington could no longer ignore the existence of the PRC because, in addition to socialist and Third World countries, some Western countries began to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
The change in Taiwan’s international position also affected the stability of the KMT’s authoritarian one-party regime. Requests for democratization came earlier, but they were met with harsh repression, including death sentences. However, in the 1980s the situation changed. Long-time dictator Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, and his son Chiang Ching-kuo came to power in 1978. Although previously harsh on political dissidents and enemies, as president of the ROC he became less and less able to prevent Taiwan’s democratization in the 1980s. The first new party was founded in 1986. It was the Democratic Progressive Party (DPS), which as a political organization could oppose the KMT more effectively than other groups and individuals. From the very beginning, the DPS had a different position on Taiwan’s statehood. Instead of a conflict between the KMT and the CCP over whose state is the right one, the DPS was openly in favor of declaring Taiwan’s independence and ending the fiction of the existence of the Republic of China.
Changes began to take place in Beijing as well, which offered the option of “one country, two political systems”. Often mentioned in connection with Hong Kong and Macao, this option was also intended for Taiwan, but it was never approved by the KMT, which until the end of the 1980s persisted in refusing to recognize the communist government in Beijing and to negotiate with it. Nevertheless, the increasing international isolation and the constant reduction of the number of countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the Republic of Croatia forced the KMT to modify its position on this matter, and by the beginning of the 1990s it had created the phrase “one country with two regions”. Talks between the two sides began, and at a meeting of their representatives in 1992, a consensus on one China was allegedly reached. However, whether it was the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China was left an unsolved question. How important this was to Beijing is shown by the case of the recognition of the Republic of Croatia by the PRC in 1992, during which the Croatian government had to declare that it respects the principle of the existence of “one China” and that Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC.
While changing international circumstances encouraged a rapprochement between Beijing and Taipei, the democratization of Taiwan that began in the late 1980s complicated them. The emergence of new political parties in Taiwan and the change of mood of the Taiwanese about unification with the PRC forced the KMT to lift the state of emergency and introduce free and multi-party elections for the president and parliament in the 1990s. This first weakened the KMT’s monopoly on power, and by 2000 it destroyed it, thus ceasing to be the only Taiwanese foreign policy actor. The conflict over whether there is one China, two Chinas, or one China and one Taiwan was both an external and an internal political issue for the Taiwanese. Taiwan’s party system during this period was thus formed around its relationship with China, with two main parties acting as poles of opposing party camps: the KMT headed the Pan-Blue Alliance and the DPS the Pan-Green Alliance. Their policies have been modified in the last 30 years, but the KMT still remains on the point of view of the existence of one China, while the DPS wants to declare the independence of Taiwan under the official name of the Republic of Taiwan.
Beijing tried to intervene in these processes from the outside. The reason was not the democratization of Taiwan per se, although its authorities allegedly tried to use this after the suppression of the Tiananmen protests to show why the ROC is better than the PRC, but to prevent Taipei from abandoning the one-China policy and preventing pro-independence forces from coming to power. The first major manifestation of this happened in 1995-1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis when the Chinese armed forces began holding military exercises near Taiwan. The reason for such a Chinese reaction was the visit of the then President of the Republic of China Lee Teng-hui to the USA. Although it was not an official state visit, but a visit to Cornell University, of which Lee is a former student, Beijing reacted strongly because it was unhappy that the US had even issued a visa to Lee and probably feared that the Americans were changing their policy on the Taiwan issue. The crisis continued until the spring of 1996 and the holding of the first direct presidential elections in Taiwan, in which Lee won. It also ended because the Americans sent their aircraft carriers to the surrounding waters, but they soon reassured Beijing that they respect the “One China” policy. During a visit to the PRC in 1998, President Clinton stated his three “no’s” - no to Taiwan independence, no to “one China, one Taiwan” or “two Chinas”, and no to Taiwan’s membership in international organizations whose members are only states. The KMT was not happy to hear that and in 1999 President Lee further stirred up the spirits of the Taiwan Strait when he declared that there were special interstate relations between the two sides.
In the next presidential election in 2000, Beijing again tried to influence Taiwanese voters. This time the threat was DPS candidate Chen Shui-bian. For Beijing, it was more acceptable for the KMT candidate Lien Chan to win the election because of that party’s “one China” policy, and because of this, PRC Prime Minister Zhu Rongji warned the Taiwanese that Beijing would never allow the island’s independence to whoever wins, actually referring to Chen. In the end, such a warning turned out to be counterproductive, as the DPS won a primary election for the first time, marking the first transition of power in Taiwan since 1945. However, the victory was also aided by a split in the KMT, its supporters splitting the votes, and the constitutional provision according to which presidential elections are single-district and a relative majority of votes is sufficient for victory. Chen thus defeated one KMT candidate and one candidate who was a former KMT member with less than 40% of the valid votes. However, the new president did not want to “provoke the devil” and publicly promised that he would not declare the independence of Taiwan or change the official name of the country. Thus, due to pragmatic reasons, he gave up the promotion of de jure independence, but not the promotion of de facto independence. Thus, in 2002, he declared that the model that solved the problem of Macao and Hong Kong was unacceptable for Taiwan and that Taiwan and China are two countries. For him and the DPS, the “1992 consensus” was no consensus at all, but a “1992 meeting” that did not bind Taiwan. After Lee won the 2004 elections, the PRC further hardened its attitude towards him by adopting the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, which also prescribes the use of “non-peaceful means” in the event of Taiwanese secession.
Relations between Taiwan and the PRC began to improve after KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou won the 2008 presidential election. In the campaign, he advocated for the improvement of relations with the PRC because of the benefits it would bring to the Taiwanese economy, which Beijing readily accepted. Ma won re-election in 2012 and in his eight years in power, Taiwan became more economically connected to the PRC than ever before. Some Taiwanese saw in this the danger of making Taiwan dependent on the PRC. In 2014, when the Taiwanese parliament planned to ratify a new agreement on economic cooperation with the PRC, the Sunflower Movement was formed, which occupied the Taiwanese parliament building for several weeks and prevented the ratification. It was a blow to the ruling KMT and provided an additional chance for DPS president Tsai Ing-wen to win the next presidential election.
After coming to power in 2016 and winning the elections again in 2020, Tsai did not insist on formal changes to the official name of the country or the declaration of independence. Like Chen, instead of promoting de jure independence, she worked to strengthen Taiwan’s de facto independence from the PRC. This was realized in her new policy of turning to the south, i.e. towards South and Southeast Asia in contrast to the KMT’s strengthening of economic cooperation with the PRC. As a result, Beijing again cooled relations with Taipei, and the peak of this was the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis in the summer of 2022. It broke out primarily because of American support for Taiwan and the visit of the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, but also because of Beijing’s determination to demonstrate will to regain the control of Taiwan in the future. The PRC is now much stronger militarily than it was at the time of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995, so the Taiwanese authorities are likely to be even less prepared for any moves related to a formal declaration of independence that would give Beijing a reason to invade.
Tsai’s term expires at the beginning of 2024 and according to the constitution she can no longer run for president. The two leading candidates in the upcoming elections also this time come from the two strongest parties: Lai Ching-te from the DPS and Hou Ju-ih from the KMT. The logic of Beijing’s behavior towards those elections is similar to before, and it prefers the victory of the KMT candidate who would be more willing to cooperate with the PRC and opposes the declaration of Taiwan’s independence. However, things are not looking good for Beijing because according to public opinion polls conducted by various media companies in August 2023, Lai is convincingly ahead of all other candidates. He is formally in favor of maintaining the status quo between the two sides, but in fact he is a supporter of Taiwan independence.
In addition to the views of Taiwanese political actors, we should also keep in mind the views of Taiwanese people on the issue of unification, the formal declaration of independence and their identity. Surveys over the past 30 years have shown that the proportion of Taiwanese who want unification with the PRC is decreasing and that the proportion of those who are in favor of maintaining the status quo, i.e. the existence of de facto independence without declaring de jure independence, is increasing. In addition, the share of Taiwanese who declare themselves to have a Taiwanese identity is increasing, while the share of those with a Chinese identity is decreasing. Thus the strengthening of the military power of the PRC makes the realization of Beijing’s desire for unification, even by the means of invasion, increasingly likely, but the decrease of the Taiwanese desire for unification makes it, on the other hand, less likely. If Beijing decides to invade, the question of whether Chinese steel or Taiwanese identity will win is more important for its success than which president is in power.