Why Taiwan’s election is a disaster for China and dilemma for the West

Why Taiwan’s election is a disaster for China and dilemma for the West

Originally published on the Australian Financial Review


A third win for the DPP would be a terrible failure for Beijing. But other nations must frame support for Taiwan beyond just the threats of war.

Taiwan goes to the polls to elect a new president and parliament on Saturday and, according to the main opposition party, the voters face a stark choice, between war and peace.

The campaign mantra of the Nationalist Party, which favours closer relations with China, echoes the line from Beijing, which has framed the poll in similarly apocalyptic terms.

The election remains close, but the candidate for ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which opposes unification with Beijing, is leading and slightly favoured to win.

If the DPP candidate does get across the line, it will be three victories in a row for the anti-China forces and conclusive evidence that the people of Taiwan have no interest in being ruled by the communist party in Beijing.

If nothing else, the capitulate-or-else rhetoric out of Beijing and their declining band of acolytes in Taiwan underlines the unfolding disaster facing Chinese policy on the democratic, self-governed island.

Beijing’s threats of war will again prove to be a failing electoral strategy for China. They have neither intimidated Taiwanese voters, nor persuaded them to their cause.

Worse still, Beijing’s insistence on framing the issue in such terms brings with it the danger of making conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Western governments, too, including Australia, are struggling with how to talk about Taiwan, but their problem in many ways is the opposite. Instead of talking up conflict, they are mostly trying to talk it down.

In late 2021, and again in early 2022, the then defence minister Peter Dutton caused an uproar by saying Australia should prepare for war in the region, and ready itself join the US in defending Taiwan.

There is no magic formula for helping Taiwan preserve the ability to decide out its own future.

The comments were consistent with Dutton’s longstanding hawkish positioning on China, and domestic security issues.

But they were also driven by pure domestic politics, as part of an effort to paint the then Labor opposition as weak on national security ahead of the May 2022, national election.

Dutton’s comments backfired in the short term. Labor won the election and has had the best of the China debate as well.

He has not changed his views. Chastened by the election loss, however, the now Opposition Leader and his colleagues have tried to moderate their language on China in light of the backlash in key swing seats in Sydney and Melbourne.

The episode, though, carried a whiff of the debate that we are witnessing in the Taiwan election campaign.

Many western leaders rightly want to alert voters to the dangers of a Taiwan crisis. How can they grab the attention of an already overloaded and disengaged public on an issue as far removed from their everyday lives as Taiwan, they argue, without dramatising the worst-case scenario of war?

Conflict over Taiwan may not be likely. It goes without saying that the Chinese want to achieve control over the self-governed island without fighting.

But equally, a Chinese invasion at some point is also possible, especially if Beijing thinks it has run out of all other options.

If that is the case, then why not be honest with Australian voters about the choices such a conflict would involve?

That’s fair enough as far as it goes. But it is an open question as to whether that such rhetoric engages the public in such a way that it builds of foundation of support and shared interests with Taiwan.

The Lowy Institute’s annual poll of Australian attitudes on foreign policy captures the limits of public support for Taiwan. On questions about accepting Taiwanese refugees and imposing sanctions on Beijing should China invade the island, public support is strong, at 80 and 76 per cent in favour respectively.

However, when asked in 2022 if they would back sending Australian military personnel, support was much softer at 42 per cent, although it could be argued this was relatively high compared with other nations.

In some ways, middle and smaller democracies take their political cues from the US. After all, it is only the US that can offer a credible military deterrence to a Chinese takeover of Taiwan.

The US, too, has been struggling how to talk about Taiwan in ways that ready the system for conflict without making it sound in public as though it is inevitable.

In late 2023, the White House quietly ordered its generals to tone down their comments about the timing of a possible Taiwan conflict. One had put it as early as 2025.

In part, the US knows it is outgunned militarily around Taiwan by China and needs time to catch up. The White House also wanted to restore a military dialogue with China. Public talk of imminent conflict was hurting both those goals.

The constant focus on a military solution to Taiwan was also a turn-off for allies in Asia and Europe, whose support Washington would need in any conflict.

A more effective way to generate instinctive support for Taiwan in places such as Australia, Japan and Europe might be to emphasise the island’s bedrock role in global economic security. The same goes for the US.

Beijing has worked hard, and often effectively, in Asia to paint the US as guilty of provoking a showdown over Taiwan.

There is no magic formula for helping Taiwan preserve the ability to decide out its own future.

But to reverse the roles of peacemaker and provocateur, Taiwan’s friends such as Australia should talk as much about stability as they do about conflict.


Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.