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Taiwan gears up for high-octane elections today that will decide future with arch-rival China

China has called the elections a choice between "war and peace" and has stepped up its coercion through military incursions and trade sanctions. Taiwan's defence ministry on Friday said it detected five Chinese balloons over the Taiwan Strait within the past 24 hours.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Taipei Updated on: January 13, 2024 0:27 IST
Taiwan, presidential elections, China
Image Source : REUTERS Taiwan gears up for presidential elections on Saturday.

Taiwan is set to go for its high-octane presidential and parliamentary elections on Saturday (January 13), a run-off that has been declared by its arch-nemesis China as a choice between war and peace. The elections would be crucial in deciding the future of Taiwan's relationship with China, which considers the self-governing island as part of its own territory and has threatened to retake it with force if necessary.

The presidential race is immensely tight and both China and Taiwan's key ally, the US, are weighing in on political and economic issues they hope will sway voters. The US has strongly backed Taiwan against China's military threats and has urged Beijing to refrain from interfering in the electoral process.

Regardless, Taiwan's government believes that China is likely to attempt to put pressure on its incoming president and tensions between the two countries are likely to increase. Taiwan's defence ministry on Friday said it detected five Chinese balloons over the Taiwan Strait within the past 24 hours, one of which crossed the island, the latest in a spate of such balloons the ministry says it has spotted over the past month.

Meanwhile, tens and thousands of people are said to attend the final pre-election rallies ahead of the critical elections, as China's defence ministry warned of "smashing any Taiwan independence plots". The polls will open at 8:00 am (5:30 am IST) and close after eight hours. Candidates will make their final appeals on Friday with campaigning to end at midnight. The result should be announced by Saturday evening with a victory speech by the winner.

China looms large ahead of crucial polls

China remains the one subject that can be ignored but not avoided, as Beijing has stepped up its military incursions on the Taiwan Strait with the purported aim of putting pressure on the island country. China has continued flying fighter planes and sailing warships near the island to put teeth behind its pledge to blockade, intimidate, or invade. Apart from China, voters are focusing on issues like the sluggish economy and expensive housing.

Current Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) presidential candidate, said that he was open to talks with China, which has repeatedly rebuffed his offers of dialogue as it believes he is a dangerous separatist. Notably, outgoing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is constitutionally barred from contesting elections after two terms, has also resisted Chinese threats.

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to prevent anyone from trying to 'split' Taiwan from the Chinese mainland "in any way", asserting that the reunification of the Chinese "motherland" is an irreversible trend. Additionally, the Chinese government has threatened to place more trade sanctions on Taiwan if the ruling DPP "stubbornly" adheres to supporting independence.

It is worth mentioning Taiwan split with China in 1949 after a civil war. However, China still calls the island nation its own. Even it provoked Taipei to war following then-US Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island nation in August last year. In fact, the ruling Communist Party says the island is obliged to rejoin the mainland, by force if necessary.

Who are the candidates?

The election pits Vice President Lai Ching-te from the DPP, against Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Party, and former mayor of the capital Taipei, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP). Lai is considered to be the frontrunner of the presidential run-off, but Hou is trailing closely behind him.  

Lai Ching Te

Lai has declared his intention to continue Tsai's policy that Taiwan is already independent and needs to make no declaration of independence that could spark a military attack from China. The vice president said he remains open to establishing dialogue with Beijing without conceding the country's right to rule itself.

India Tv - Taiwan, presidential elections, China, Lai Ching te

Image Source : REUTERSSupporters of presidential candidate Lai Ching-Te wave flags

"As long as there is equality and dignity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan's door will always be open,” he said in December. If elected president, Lai has pledged to strengthen national defense and the economy. His running mate is former US envoy Bi-khim Hsiao.

Lai says he is committed to preserving peace across the Taiwan Strait, but has accused China of seeking to interfere in the elections by spreading disinformation and putting further military and economic pressure on the island which Beijing views as "sacred" Chinese territory.

Hou Yu-ih

Not only China, Lai is facing strong opposition from his KMT rival Hou, who has accused him of supporting Taiwan's independence. Notably, KMT retreated to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war against the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and is considered to be more pro-China than DPP, even favouring reunification with the Chinese mainland.

Hou, currently the mayor of New Taipei, has been accused of being pro-China, a claim he has denied. Hou said he wants to re-start engagement with China, beginning with people-to-people exchanges as his party sought reunification on their own terms, which is a somewhat abstract concept given China's demand for total power.

The KMT candidate also stressed that Taiwan's future needs to be decided by its people and has pledged to strengthen national defense as part of his 3D strategy - deterrence, dialogue and de-escalation. He claims himself as more likely to convince China to hold talks than Lai. His running mate is former legislator and Jaw Shau-kong.

Ko Wen-je

The DPP and KMT alike face a formidable challenge from the TPP, seeking to break the two-party politics in the country. The presidential candidate of this small party is Ko Wen-Je, an outspoken surgeon-turned-politician who has aimed to strike a balance between Taiwan and the US that would not upset relations with China. His running mate is Cynthia Wu, a business executive hailing from a wealthy family.

Ko said he is the only “acceptable” candidate for both Washington and Beijing, adding that while there's nothing Taiwan could do to please both China and the US, it is important for the island to refrain from "behavior that is intolerable to either side". He is more popular among younger voters, who praise his focus on practical issues like housing and education.

Like KMT, TPP also argues that Taiwan needs a change of government after eight years. "This political status quo has led to an increasing wave of people hoping for reform. It has also pushed the TPP, which represents Taiwan's third force, onto the stage of Taiwan's politics," he told reporters on Friday.

Impact of Taiwan polls on US-China relations

Taiwan's election is closely watched internationally due to the potential for rising military tensions across the Taiwan Strait. The United States plans to send an unofficial delegation comprised of former senior officials to the island shortly after the polls, a move that can damage efforts to repair ties between Beijing and Washington, which has plunged in recent years over several issues.

China suspended military communications with the US, fired missiles over Taiwan and conducted a practice of a possible future blockade of the Taiwan Strait after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Xi in his recent meeting with US President Joe Biden called Taiwan "the most sensitive issue" in US-China relations.

Washington is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and consider all threats to the island as matters of “grave concern,” while remaining ambiguous on whether it would use military forces. Over recent years, the US has stepped up support for Taiwan as Beijing ratchets up military and diplomatic pressure on the island, although the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have impacted American aid.

The US government insists the differences between Beijing and Taipei be resolved peacefully and opposes any unilateral change to their status quo. While Chinese leaders and state propaganda proclaim unification is inevitable and will be achieved at any cost, the Taiwanese have consistently voted in favour of maintaining their de facto political independence.

(with inputs from agencies)

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