Last month, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping strolled through the lush gardens of a grand California mansion engaged in an intimate and candid conversation.
It was their first face-to-face summit in a year, and the Chinese president was blunt: Taiwan, Xi told his American counterpart, was the most important and dangerous issue in the troubled relationship between the two countries.
Beijing’s policy toward the self-governing island it claims is its own will be in the spotlight again when Taiwan voters go to the polls on Jan. 13 to elect a new president and parliament, and the United States will be watching closely.
At the moment, William Lai Ching-te, incumbent vice president and candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is expected to win.
That outcome would likely irritate Beijing, which portrays Lai as a “separatist” bent on independence, and ensure continued tension in the strait separating the island from China.
“Washington is well prepared to deal with whatever choice Taiwan’s electorate makes, but there will certainly be different opportunities and challenges depending on the election results,” Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera. , adding that the United States would be considering strategies to send “appropriate political signals” to deter any Chinese military response.
Beijing has increased pressure on Taiwan since voters first elected the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen as president in 2016, cutting off all official dialogue, conducting military activities around the island and encouraging the country’s few remaining formal diplomatic allies. Taipei to change its recognition to Beijing.
The United States, which maintains official ties with China, is nevertheless Taiwan’s most important international supporter and is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself. In August it approved the sale of millions of dollars in military equipment and weapons to the island.
Opinion polls place Lai just ahead of Hou Yu-ih of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT).
While the KMT is seen as friendlier to Beijing, neither candidate supports unification, which is a cornerstone of Beijing’s policy toward the island. All candidates, to varying degrees, want to continue cooperation with the United States and keep China’s influence at bay.
Since taking office, Tsai, who maintains that Taiwan’s people must choose their future, has strengthened cooperation with Washington, welcoming dozens of American politicians, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and meeting with key representatives on stops in the United States, despite the fury. in China.
“I would say she is now the best president of Taiwan that the United States will ever have,” said Kharis Templeman, director of the project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
A victory for the DPP’s Lai, who also visited the United States, could further distance Taiwan from Beijing, which has accused Lai of calling for independence and risking war.
When Pelosi visited Taipei in August 2022, Beijing launched unprecedented war exercises in and around the island and cut off military communication channels with Washington.
“Lai will be very focused in the absence of open channels for dialogue with Beijing, making sure that his relations with the United States are really strong,” Daniels said.
If the KMT’s Hou were to win, Daniels says the United States would have to find a way to counter Beijing’s likely increased influence, but analysts say a Hou victory could also potentially be beneficial for US-China ties by lower the temperature in negotiations. Close relationships.
“That would allow the United States and China to move Taiwan from the center of the relationship to the side,” Stanford’s Templeman said.
One caveat is that parliamentary elections will also take place on January 13, and although Lai leads the polls for president, experts say the DPP could lose its majority in the legislature.
In that type of scenario, the US government will be watching the candidates to see how they approach negotiations between and within parties.
Questions have already been raised about the ability of opposition parties to work together after the KMT and Taiwan People’s Party’s attempt to present a unity formula and mount a concerted challenge to the DPP collapsed in disarray. Hou and Ko Wen-je of the TPP ended up in an embarrassing public debacle, unable to agree on which candidate would run for president.
Policy and principle
Whatever the outcome, the United States will continue to insist on the need to dialogue and avoid military confrontation, especially since the military dialogue that was a casualty of Pelosi’s visit was reactivated last month.
In recent years, the United States has stepped up transits through the Taiwan Strait, and Daniels says that carries the risk of being misunderstood.
“We’re going to see these minor outbursts that each side thinks are for defensive purposes and that the other side perceives as so aggressive, that it starts a cycle of escalation,” Daniels told Al Jazeera.
Instead of high-profile diplomatic visits that have raised political and military temperatures, Daniels suggests the United States could move forward with more substantial commitments.
“A free trade agreement between the United States and Taiwan would be a really strong signal of support for the relationship. And the United States can fulfill its foreign military sales to Taiwan,” Daniels said. “Taiwan has purchased a lot of equipment and, as I understand it, it has not been delivered yet.”
While Washington supports deterrence for Taiwan, it has for years maintained a deliberately vague policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan’s status, characterized by its “One China” approach.
For the United States, One China is a policy that officially recognizes Beijing as the only legitimate government of China and recognizes, but does not accept, Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.
For Beijing, by contrast, One China is a principle that provides the basis for its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.
However, since Biden came to power in 2021, there have been questions about whether the United States could have changed its approach.
On several occasions, the president has said that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a military conflict with Beijing, prompting the White House to qualify its comments and reiterate that the status quo has remained.
“There is a kind of contradiction at the heart of American policy toward Taiwan: it leads to some general skepticism toward the United States,” Templeman said.
‘Out of our control’
Among those who question the United States’ commitment to Taiwan is documentary filmmaker S. Leo Chiang, who closely follows the statements of American politicians on Taiwan.
“Biden says one thing but the administration says another. “These are infinite uncertainties,” Chiang told Al Jazeera.
Chiang is not the only person raising questions about America’s commitment.
A survey conducted in September by the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institution, showed that trust in the United States among Taiwanese had fallen from 45.3 percent in 2021 to 34 percent. this year.
Nearly a third said they did not believe the United States would use force to help Taiwan if Beijing used force to achieve its goal of taking control of the island.
Chiang, who holds a U.S. and Taiwanese passport, has spent time living in both countries. As a Taiwanese resident who plans to vote, he says seeing Congress split and Republicans block sending additional aid to Ukraine last month was a worrying sign.
“My biggest fear is the politicization of Ukraine, as will happen in Taiwan,” Chiang said. “They’re out there telling the world that we’re defenders of democracy, but when it’s all said and done, that’s not always the case.”
But experts warn against direct comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine. Taiwan is the United States’ 10th largest trading partner and a key source of advanced semiconductor chips, Templeman notes, underscoring the close economic relationship.
Caught in the crosshairs of two superpowers are the more than 23 million Taiwanese citizens.
Chiang grew up in the 1970s, when Taiwan was under martial law and her grandmother’s basement was designated as a bomb shelter for the neighborhood block during military exercises.
Today, Taiwan is one of the region’s strongest democracies, and the underground halls are spaces for living and storage.
“We’ve been living with this for a long time and there’s a feeling that it’s out of our control,” Chiang said. “I want Taiwan to have the right to self-determination. And unfortunately, that’s not going to happen anytime soon – it’s a major source of frustration.”