China has dispatched warships toward Taiwan following the island’s presidential election, a move that starkly highlights Beijing’s aggressive posture in the face of what it perceives as a provocation. The election of Lai Ching-te, a former advocate for Taiwan’s independence and the current vice president, as Taiwan’s new leader, has been met with a stern response from Beijing, reflecting deep-seated anxieties about its diminishing influence over the self-governing island.
The election outcome is particularly troubling for Beijing, as it signifies a continued rejection of its overtures and a challenge to the Communist Party’s long-standing objective of reunification. Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has intertwined his legacy with the unification of Taiwan and mainland China, views the democratic island’s choice as a direct affront to his authority and the national aspirations of China. Analyst Chen Fang-Yu from Soochow University in Taipei insightfully notes, “A Lai win will mean that Xi loses face… It means his Taiwan policy has failed. So now he must do something to show his muscle.”
China’s reaction has been swift and alarming. The dispatch of military vessels near Taiwan, coupled with a high-altitude Chinese balloon detected off the northwest coast, signals a heightened level of military intimidation. This response aligns with Beijing’s pattern of coercive tactics, which include military exercises and economic pressures designed to unsettle Taiwan and assert dominance.
Despite these aggressive moves, analysts in Taiwan and the United States believe that an outright conflict or invasion remains unlikely for now. China’s actions are tempered by its desire to maintain the recently stabilized relations with Washington, as evidenced by the arrival of a high-profile U.S. delegation in Taipei, including former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former deputy secretary of state James Steinberg.
However, the Chinese government’s rhetoric has been unmistakably harsh. Following Lai’s victory, official statements from Beijing condemned the election results, with the Chinese Embassy in London asserting, “No matter how the situation in Taiwan changes, the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China will not change.” This stance underscores China’s unwavering commitment to its One-China policy and its refusal to acknowledge Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Under Lai’s leadership, Taiwan is expected to continue its policy of maintaining the status quo and avoiding direct confrontation with China. Yet, Beijing’s refusal to engage with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its rejection of the DPP’s stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty complicates any potential dialogue. Taiwanese voters, regardless of their political preferences, are preparing for a turbulent period ahead, with some voicing readiness to defend their nation against Chinese aggression.
In the coming months, Beijing’s strategy will likely involve a calculated approach to exert pressure on Taiwan while avoiding actions that could irreparably damage its relations with the United States. This approach may include increased military activities, economic sanctions, and diplomatic efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally.
China’s actions following the election not only demonstrate its willingness to exert military pressure but also highlight the underlying tension between its nationalistic ambitions and the reality of Taiwan’s democratic resilience. The deployment of warships and the presence of high-altitude surveillance balloons near Taiwan are clear indications of Beijing’s intent to signal its displeasure and assert its claims over the island.
The rhetoric from Beijing has been unyielding, with Chinese officials and state media emphasizing the perceived illegitimacy of Lai’s victory. The Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office, in a statement, asserted that the election results do not represent mainstream public opinion on the island, underscoring Beijing’s stance against the DPP’s leadership.
The election of Lai Ching-te, with his history of advocating for Taiwan’s independence, has undoubtedly added a layer of complexity to the already strained cross-Strait relations. His election represents a continuity of the Taiwanese public’s desire for self-governance and a rejection of Beijing’s unification narrative. However, Lai has moderated his stance, expressing willingness to engage with Beijing “as equals” while maintaining the island’s sovereignty.
In the face of China’s assertive posturing, Taiwan’s citizens, as well as its newly elected leadership, face the challenge of navigating a path that balances their democratic values and national identity with the realities of their powerful neighbor’s ambitions. The international community, particularly the United States, plays a crucial role in this dynamic, offering support to Taiwan while managing its complex relationship with China.
China’s ploy to sway the elections has failed, but the game continues. Some speculate that China’s next move might be to attack Taiwan directly, which might be possible with a more timid Biden administration. If Trump is a victor in the next election, it will be much more difficult. The next few months could be a wild ride.