Time for Joy, not Concern – Thoughts on the Recent Taiwanese Elections

When will the West finally realise and embrace that there is now a second Chinese nation – called Taiwan –, a democratic alternative to the totalitarian model across the Taiwan Street and the trampled hope of Hong Kong? The rather restrained and concerned reaction in many Western countries on the democratic election of the new Taiwanese president, Lai Ching-te, seems strange. Shouldn’t it rather be a source of relief and joy, given the widespread concerns about an unstoppable rise of authoritarianism?

The convincing and clear victory of Lai Ching-te, the ROC’s former Premier and current Vice-President, running for the Democratic Progressive Party, is a remarkable start to the global election marathon in 2024, where the democratic systems of major countries will be put to the test.

How should Europe react? What could a new phase of engagement with Taiwan look like?

It can be predicted that European governments will continue to act too restrained to upgrade their relations substantially. Too many concerns about mainland China’s retaliation keep them from adequately coping with the development within Taiwan. Therefore, it is up to the European Parliament, its national counterparts, and its parties to push for deepening the political exchange with their newly elected counterpart, the Legislative Yuan, in Taipei. The potential for this level of cooperation, which has to be extended to civil society as well, is far from being fully exploited.

For too long, our view on Taiwan has been dominated rather by a functional perspective: the country was seen as a pawn on the Pacific chess board of superpower competition between the United States and Mainland China; and a key player in the global technology race. But much more exciting and unique in the Chinese, even Asian world, is its successful transition from a dictatorship towards the establishment and maturing of a democratic nation. Beijing’s ridiculous reaction to doubt the free will and legitimacy of the Taiwanese people’s vote needs no further comment. Lai’s victory is a clear signal to the world about the confidence of the Taiwanese people in their right to determine their future.

But Taiwan will continue heading into ever more turbulent waters, domestically and internationally. The more interesting part is the problematic coalition formation in the Parliament, with an oppositional majority. It will be interesting to witness a rather new political dynamic, not unknown to mature democracies, but with the danger of creating friction, which Beijing will try to exploit.

In relation to mainland China, Lai Ching-te will follow the lines laid out by the previous administration of President Tsai Ing-wen. In this approach, he has the support of the Taiwanese people who have developed a remarkable capability to live under a permanent threat, while being locked into the narrow corset of a second-class nation. Yet, being aware of the thin path they can walk, they need no external lecturing, least of all from Europe.

As the pressure from across the Taiwan Strait increases, the key to responding to such demonstrative threats with confidence and restraint lies more than ever with the United States. That means further credibly reinforcing the U.S. position, making clear to Beijing that Washington would not tolerate any use of force across the Strait. This position can still go hand in hand with reiterating the United States’ stance on the “one China” principle, which includes refraining both sides from unilaterally changing the status quo.

Yet, after the confirmation of the dominant role of the DPP as an expression of a strong Taiwanese identity, neither side on the Taiwan Strait can continue with old narratives. The 1992 consensus, which acknowledged two political bodies without excluding reunification, is no longer shared within Taiwanese society. And since Xi Jinping achieved unprecedented power in the PRC, he has also clearly denounced this accord against its “historical mission” of reunification.

Regarding its contribution to hard power deterrence, Europe has no real cards to play. Taiwan’s security remains totally in the hands of the United States and its closest regional ally, Japan. But economic integration, a deeper scientific exchange and joint efforts into sustainable transformation are fields of promising cooperation. There is nothing in the concept of a “one-China” policy which prevents Europe from doing more. However, this stepping up of initiatives should not be limited to Taiwan. The whole region around the South China Sea deserves better engagement and upholding of norms of international law by Europe. Linking up with Taiwan’s own initiatives in that region could leverage Europe’s footprint, too.