4 things to know about Taiwan’s ‘crucial’ election — and where the U.S. fits in

Taiwan is preparing for a momentous election.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Nearly 20 million voters will head to the polls on Jan. 13 in Taiwan, in a presidential election that analysts say will be “crucial” for the future of the Asian island and its relationships with both the United States and China.

Here’s a brief guide to understanding what’s at stake.

1. What is Taiwan, and how does it conduct campaigns?

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Taiwan is an island (technically, one main island and a collection of small islands) a little bit larger than the state of Maryland, located roughly 100 miles from mainland China.

The body of water that separates them is the Taiwan Strait, and the term “cross-strait” is often invoked to refer to the relationship between Taiwan and China.

Only 13 countries in the world recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. But for the last 30-odd years, the Asian island has been self-governed by a democracy that emerged out of decades of military rule. That young democracy is now cherished by its citizens.

In the 2020 election, nearly 75% of eligible Taiwanese voters cast ballots, and Taiwan’s civil society is often ranked as the most open or free in all of Asia.

Taiwan is known for its colorful campaign election culture. Lev Nachman, a political science scholar at National Chengchi University in Taipei, likened it to “a circus at the Super Bowl,” full of campaign cookouts and rallies at local parks.

“Everyone grows up learning what it was like when there were no elections,” he told NPR. “And I think that memory is what keeps people voting.”

2. What do the colors stand for?

The two major political coalitions, known by the colors green and blue, generally represent opposing perspectives to the central question of how to get along with China.

The Democratic Progressive Party (or the DPP) is the current ruling party. Its presidential candidate is the incumbent Vice President Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai).

Broadly speaking, the DPP wants to assert a stronger Taiwanese identity and argues that Chinese aggression can be mitigated by deepening partnerships with other nations. Lai’s choice of running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, formerly Taiwan’s top diplomat in the U.S., is seen as a nod to the importance of that relationship.

The current opposition Kuomintang (or the KMT) party’s presidential candidate is the New Taipei City mayor Hou Yu-ih. Hou has framed this election as a choice between war and peace and argues that more diplomatic and economic interaction with Beijing can keep the peace.

This year, a third party called the Taiwan People’s Party (or TPP) has also entered the race, with party founder and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je.

The TPP brands itself in turquoise — the hybrid of green and blue — as an alternative to two-party dominance, and that message has caught on with some younger voters. Throughout this campaign, Ko has expressed his preference for engagement with China, so some analysts also put him in the pan-blue camp.

3. Why is China so important to Taiwan’s election?

To answer this question, let’s start with a bit of history.

Towards the end of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party pushed out the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek. The latter group then retreated to and took command over the island of Taiwan.

That government in Taiwan claimed to control all of greater China including the mainland as well as Mongolia, while China claimed to control all of greater China including Taiwan.

To this day, the official name of Taiwan is the Republic of China (ROC) — not to be confused with the official name of China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). You’ll often hear the acronyms ROC and PRC used where legal or diplomatic precision is required.

China has now assembled one of the world’s most powerful militaries. Its ruling Communist Party (CCP) has never officially ruled Taiwan, but it has nevertheless long considered Taiwan to be a part of China.

Generations of CCP leaders — including current President Xi Jinping — have vowed to “re-unite” Taiwan, by force if necessary.

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While Taiwan’s leaders face plenty of domestic issues in this election — relatively low wages, high housing prices, energy security, an aging population, and so forth — cross-strait relations are often the elephant in the room of Taiwanese politics.

The threat of war with a bigger neighbor and its far bigger military is always simmering.

4. Where does the U.S. fit into all this?

The January election will have policy implications for the U.S., too.

The U.S. officially adheres to what it calls “the one China policy”, which acknowledges China’s claim to Taiwan, but views Taiwan’s sovereignty as officially unsettled. However, in recent years the U.S.-China rivalry has encouraged many in Washington (on both sides of the aisle) to show support for Taipei as a way of standing up to Beijing.

When then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022, as the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island in 15 years, China sharply increased military exercises over the Taiwan Strait in response.

While the U.S. has tried to be strategically ambiguous about what it would offer Taiwan in the case of a military invasion – recent statements from President Biden aside — if China appears to escalate its threat, the U.S. may show more of its hand.

Taiwan also boasts a highly-developed economy, and is a hub for several key industries. Top among them is the manufacturing of semiconductors, the crucial elements of computer chips. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) alone makes more than 90% of the most advanced processors.

A major disturbance to Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty could cripple global supply chains and put untold billions of dollars of business around the world at risk.

In the big picture, the U.S. would also take a rooting interest in the continued success of the only Chinese-speaking democracy — which is also a trading partner – in the face of growing autocracy in the region and around the world.

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