In the wake of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te’s victory in the Taiwan presidential election on Jan. 13, 2024, the United States government took the opportunity to celebrate Taiwan’s thriving democracy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated the Taiwanese for “demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process.” The comment likely alluded to The People’s Republic of China’s direct and at times thuggish attempts to prevent Lai’s victory.
Yet in the rush to praise Taiwan’s political system, observers have been slow to point out the effects of the election on American interests. As the primary backer of Taiwanese sovereignty (in practice if not in word), the United States has a responsibility to consider how Lai’s victory will affect stability in the western Pacific.
Despite its positive reception, the DPP victory carries serious strategic risks for the US. This may seem counterintuitive. During the campaign, Lai promised to maintain his party’s cross-strait status quo, reduce dependence on China, and strengthen ties with the US despite vociferous criticism by the Chinese government. The Kuomintang (KMT) opposition candidate Hou Yu-ih, on the other hand, called for closer ties with China, and his party repeatedly questioned American reliability. What’s not to like about the DPP?
An Unstable Status Quo
We must not lose sight of the strategic reality in the Taiwan strait. Even more than maintaining close relations or promoting mutual trade, America’s primary interest vis-a-vis Taiwan is in preventing China from launching an attack on the island. A conflict between China and Taiwan would cause economic and physical destruction of a sort not seen since the 1940s, regardless of the ultimate victor. Bloomberg Economics puts the potential global economic damage at $10 trillion, not to mention the risks of nuclear escalation. Should the US become militarily involved, even the most optimistic wargames predict the United States losing two supercarriers and hundreds of fighter planes, as well tens of thousands of casualties. In light of this harsh reality, a best case scenario involves the US delaying the conflict until either Chinese military power peaks or Taiwan’s defenses are strong enough to deter invasion.
Given the importance of stability, any event that reduces Chinese aggressive intent against Taiwanese sovereignty should be welcomed, while unnecessary provocations (such as Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 trip to Taiwan) work against that core goal. By that metric, the current Taiwanese government has done a poor job at defusing tension. Since the nominally pro-independence DPP took power in 2016, the Chinese have dramatically escalated violations of Taiwanese airspace, cyberattacks, and aggressive rhetoric. Things have gotten so tense that some experts predict a war as early as next year. The DPP cannot be blamed for China’s irredentist aims, but neither has it made a serious diplomatic attempt to de-escalate or stall them.
Hou’s platform, on the other hand, offered a much-needed new strategy to reduce tensions across the strait. His “3D strategy” of deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation promised to revive cross-strait trade agreements while bolstering the capacity of the Taiwanese military. “No matter how the mainland changes,” Hou said, “we must be prepared and we must have strength.”
Of course, it would be naive to think that any one administration can defuse the tension around the straits. Some might say that Chinese behavior would remain the exact same regardless of the ruling Taiwanese party, although the extensive effort made by the Chinese to prevent Lai’s victory suggests the PRC is far from indifferent. Even if rejected, the KMT’s overtures would have increased the diplomatic cost of Chinese aggression. Moreover, a spurned Taiwan would have been better able to unite against the Chinese threat, since many Taiwanese currently feel that their country’s posture is needlessly provocative. At a minimum, Taiwanese diplomatic engagement with China might buy precious time for Taiwan to strengthen its own deterrence, particularly as billions in American military aid remains delayed by supply shortages.
A strongly pro-American Taiwan is likely more dangerous for American security than a Taiwan that hedges its bets.
Nor is there any risk that a more pro-Chinese government in Taipei will implement a “peaceful reunification” with China. Hou declared that reunification would not be on the table during his administration, a wise move given that just over 10% of Taiwanese support such a measure. The United States, in short, would have had little to fear from a KMT victory, and potentially much to gain.
Analysts have predicted that the DPP victory will do nothing to reduce escalating tensions in the Pacific. This is not in the United States’ interest. Nor is it necessarily a popular outcome in Taiwan, where voters focused mostly on domestic issues this cycle.
Of course, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. The United States will enjoy a close partnership with Lai and the DPP, but that does not mean that the United States should accept the status quo of inexorable escalation. Instead, the United States should encourage Lai’s administration to pair its military buildup with at least some effort at diplomatic conciliation, perhaps even borrowing a few of Hou’s more popular ideas.
Amid rising competition between the United States and China, there exists a temptation to see the relationship as a zero-sum game, where any diplomatic gains by China represent a defeat for the United States. Such is not the case. A strongly pro-American Taiwan is likely more dangerous for American security than a Taiwan that hedges its bets. A KMT-style rapprochement with China would have no guarantee of reducing tensions, but in an increasingly unstable status quo, the US should welcome a change of strategy.