Ahead of the November 20 deadline to register candidates, Taiwan’s campaign season for the January 2024 presidential elections is in full swing and voters are presented with four candidates. While economic and energy policies will be key for voters, the chief foreign policy issue is how to manage relations with China. Both Beijing and Washington will be watching closely for what the election augurs for cross-Strait tension and Taiwan’s relationships with the world’s two major powers.

Supporters of Tsai Ing-wen, who is finishing two terms as president, at a campaign event, Sept. 5, 2015. As Tsai leaves office, her replacement will have to navigate tense cross-Strait relations. (Billy H.C. Kwok/The New York Times)
Supporters of Tsai Ing-wen, who is finishing two terms as president, at a campaign event, Sept. 5, 2015. As Tsai leaves office, her replacement will have to navigate tense cross-Strait relations. (Billy H.C. Kwok/The New York Times)

USIP’s Kemi Adewalure, Rosie Levine, Jennifer Staats and Alex Stephenson explain how the candidates are approaching cross-Strait relations, what the key domestic issues are and how the elections are viewed in Beijing and Washington.

Who are the primary candidates in Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election and what are their platforms?

Adewalure: Taiwan is in the midst of a landmark presidential campaign in the lead-up to the January election. According to a recent poll, Lai Ching-te leads with about 29.7%, followed by Ko Wen-je at 25.6%, Hou Yu-ih at 21.1% and Terry Guo trailing far behind. For voters, key issues on the campaign trail have ranged from geopolitics to the economy, with kitchen table issues likely to drive many voters to the polls.

The four candidates have been framing their campaigns as critical for the future of Taiwan. Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s current vice president, has posited that his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has successfully managed growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait under the current president, Tsai Ing-wen. The DPP argues that they will help guide the nation to increased autonomy and security through closer relations with the United States and other like-minded democracies.

The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has put forward a relative outsider as their presidential nominee. Hou Yu-ih is a former police chief turned mayor of New Taipei City and is campaigning on fears around war with China but emphasizes that the KMT is better positioned to manage cross-strait tensions. KMT leadership has put this starkly: "Vote for the DPP, youth will go to the battlefield. Vote for the Kuomintang, and there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait."

The Taiwan’s People’s Party (TPP) candidate, Ko Wen-je, is also a relative newcomer to national politics and is hoping to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with both parties to forge a new “pragmatic” path forward for Taiwan that balances economic gains and manages the relationship with China.

Lastly, Foxconn founder Terry Gou has joined the race as an independent candidate after failing to receive a nomination from the KMT. His campaign has faced numerous scandals, and while it is very unlikely he will secure the presidency, he could act as a spoiler in a tight race.

Stephenson: This is Taiwan’s first serious multi-party presidential race since 2000, when a split KMT vote allowed the DPP to secure its first presidential victory. The 2024 election certainly bears some resemblance to 2000. Right now, it appears that Lai will likely win unless Hou and Ko can reach a compromise, either by forming a single ticket or by one of the candidates agreeing to drop out of the race.

On October 30, the KMT and TPP agreed to collaborate on legislative elections, which run simultaneous to next year’s presidential election. However, at the time of writing, there has been no agreement on how to approach the presidential election and a compromise seems unlikely. Among other reasons, Hou and the KMT do not want to subordinate themselves to a third party. Meanwhile, Ko does not want to join the KMT ticket after founding the TPP specifically as an alternative third party to the KMT and DPP. Any kind of agreement will need to be reached by November 20, when candidates must officially register and become unable to drop out of the race.  

How are the candidates approaching cross-Strait relations?

Levine: The key foreign policy issue in the race is how to best manage cross-Strait relations. For now, the political postures of all three leading candidates share a surprising amount of overlap. All are advocating for a version of the “status quo” that rejects declarations of formal independence, rebuffs China’s creeping territorial claims, retains a relationship with the United States and rejects China’s proposal of “one country, two systems” for bringing Taiwan more formally under Chinese control. Despite these similarities, the differences in each candidate’s position point to distinct visions for how to translate these positions into policy.  

Lai has echoed the DPP’s position that formal declarations of independence are not necessary when Taiwan already enjoys many of the benefits of de-facto independence. He will be expected to continue this position if elected, but some worry that old comments reveal desires for increased independence if elected. Since the DPP victory in 2016, China has frozen official communication with the party and increased economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and military activities. Lai, like any incumbent, will have to not only defend his own policy positions but will also have to answer for actions of his party (and China’s response to those actions) over the past eight years.  

The KMT has historically emphasized the need for dialogue and cooperation with China as the best way to manage cross-strait tensions. Hou, the KMT candidate, has signaled more moderate views on cross-Strait relations compared to other voices in his party and has demonstrated resistance to traditional KMT views: early in his candidacy, Hou failed to take a clear stance on the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit agreement between the two sides that acknowledges the existence of "one China" but does not define what that means. He has since fallen into rank. Hou’s reputation for not falling into lockstep has made some KMT hardliners worried about how he would govern if elected.

Lastly, the TPP candidate, Ko, has positioned himself as a more centrist and pragmatic policymaker who is seeking to balance both the United States and China to allow Taiwan to pursue its growth and national security. The TPP is the newest party and thus has less precedent to benchmark its positions. Ko’s messaging on cross-Strait relations emphasizes the need for economic and cultural connection with China, while balancing Taiwan's self-governance and national security. His emphasis on pragmatism would likely involve more dialogue and formal engagement with China than seen under the current administration.

Translating the policy positions of each candidate into practice will pose a challenge. The candidates bring different levels of policymaking expertise to implementation as well: Both Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je lack substantive foreign policy experience. By contrast, the DPP ticket has much more familiarity in foreign affairs with Hsiao Bi-khim, who is currently serving as the highest-ranking Taiwan official in the United States, rumored to be the current vice president’s running mate.

Lastly, any policy position could shift if the situation on the ground changes in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. or Chinese actions could alter the operating environment: high-level visits, military exercises or near collisions have all tested relations between the United States, China and Taiwan. Larger global conflict dynamics such as Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine and the crisis in Gaza may impact voter attitudes in Taiwan, how much support the United States could commit to Taiwan, or China’s assessments about timelines and scenarios for unification. Voters in Taiwan will likely be assessing many of these global dynamics, as well as pressing domestic issues, as they head to the ballot box in January.

What are some of the key domestic issues for voters in the presidential election?

Stephenson: While cross-Strait relations are always a hot topic in Taiwan’s presidential elections, several domestic issues are high on voters’ priority lists, including the economy, energy security and defense reforms.

First, Taiwan’s export-driven economy is coming out of a recession. The government recently forecasted full-year growth to be only 1.6%, down almost a full percent from 2022. According to Hou and Ko, better relations with the mainland may help revive the sluggish economy. Lai, meanwhile, wants to diversify the island’s economic relationships to reduce its dependence on China, citing national security concerns. Such an approach may take time and could be less appealing to voters who wish to see a swift economic turnaround. Fortunately for Lai, the economy expanded 2.3% in the third quarter, its fastest pace in a year, thanks to increased consumer spending.

Second, nuclear energy and energy security have been a point of contention between the main candidates. In the last few years, the Tsai administration has been phasing out nuclear power. As a result, nuclear now only accounts for 8% of Taiwan’s power consumption, even as the island aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. Lai is the only candidate who generally opposes the use of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants; however, he has shown some signs of straying from Tsai’s energy policy, recently stating that he won’t rule out nuclear energy if issues of safety and waste can be adequately addressed.

Meanwhile, Hou announced that he would not phase out nuclear power and would re-open decommissioned plants if elected. He cited not only environmental sustainability but also national security as a reason for his decision. At present, Taiwan is heavily dependent on imported energy, mostly natural gas, which has sparked concern about whether Taipei could keep the lights on in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion. For Hou, nuclear power plants are part of the solution for securing a stable power supply for the island. Ko has similarly recommended extending the service life of the Maanshan plant, Taiwan’s only remaining active nuclear power plant.

Finally, all three candidates appear to agree on the importance of reforming Taiwan’s military conscription. Last year, the Tsai administration increased required military service from four months to a full year, effective January 1, 2024, a decision which Lai has continued to champion. Ko meanwhile, has added that effective reforms require more than elongated conscription, saying that “the substance of the military training” also needs to be improved. While Hou originally rejected the Tsai administration’s decision, he has since walked back his statements that he would reduce mandatory military service back to four months if elected.

How does Beijing view the election?

Staats: Beijing would prefer a KMT victory (or, more precisely, a DPP defeat) to lower the temperature in cross-Strait affairs and advance Xi Jinping’s broader goal of peaceful unification, as China believes that the DPP seeks independence, regardless of their public statements. Over the last few months, Chinese officials have largely been careful not to publicly put their thumb on the scales of the election, as Beijing does not want to inadvertently boost Lai’s candidacy. Over the last week, however, Beijing’s tone has become much more ominous: China’s top military official warned that China “will show absolutely no mercy” to anyone who supports Taiwan independence, and the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office called the Taiwan election a “choice between war and peace.”

China has also tried to influence the election in other ways, such as using disinformation to undermine the Taiwan public’s confidence in its own government, challenge the credibility and durability of U.S. support to Taiwan, and advance China’s broader narrative that the United States and Taiwan are behaving in ways that are destabilizing and escalatory.

Regardless of who wins on January 13, Beijing likely does not expect to see a lasting change in cross-Strait relations. If Lai wins, China would continue to reject engagement with a new DPP government that, like the Tsai administration, does not acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. However, neither is the DPP likely to formally declare independence during a Lai presidency. And even if a future KMT leader establishes more open communication and connectivity with Beijing, the majority of the Taiwan people oppose unification, while Beijing remains committed to that goal. Tensions might ease in the short run under a KMT president, but no matter which party controls the presidency, Beijing will continue to pressure the island to compel the Taiwan people to choose “peaceful unification” over war.

What is the significance of the election for the United States?

Levine: The implications of the 2024 Taiwan election are significant for the United States. The election will determine the next phase of Taiwan's foreign policy, particularly its relationship with China, during a crucial period. A DPP victory would likely continue to deepen Taiwan's ties with the United States and other like-minded democracies but may lead to increased tensions with China, as Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to work with the DPP. A KMT victory could lead to complicated dynamics in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship if Taiwan seeks to rebuild economic and diplomatic connectivity with China while U.S.-China tensions remain high. A TPP victory would be more difficult to predict since the party is so new and has not yet fully articulated its positions on key issues.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, U.S. policymakers will need to carefully navigate the complex and evolving relationships among the United States, China and Taiwan amid a new leadership that will inevitably face complex challenges during their time in office.

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