President Tsai Ing-wen will be stepping down in 2024 after two terms in office, leaving behind a mixed legacy in significantly advancing the U.S.-Taiwan relationship as tensions across the Taiwan Strait continue to rise. In the upcoming presidential election, voters will choose among candidates who have proposed to follow Tsai’s course or strike a different balance between the United States and China.

“Taiwan’s current challenges are all at the international level. I hope the next president will have the ability to handle international affairs,” Tsai said in response to a question regarding her expectations for her successor. 

Top contenders for the presidency are Vice President Lai Ching-te for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), New Taipei Mayor Hou You-yi for the Kuomintang (KMT), and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je for the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

No matter who wins the election, the general trend of deepening U.S.-Taiwan ties through congressional visits and exchanges is unlikely to change. The next president’s approach to China though, will influence the balance Taiwan maintains in its trilateral relations with the U.S. and China. 

Lai Ching-te: ‘pragmatic Taiwanese independence political worker’

VP Lai Ching-te has been endorsed by President Tsai, but his connection with the DPP’s“deep-green” faction, which advocates for the de jure independence of Taiwan, has raised questions.

An earlier report by the Financial Times has suggested that Washington may have concerns about a Lai presidency, as he has repeatedly described himself as a “pragmatic independence political worker.” What Lai’s “pragmatism” may entail remains untested, but Washington’s greatest fear is that Taiwan may escalate cross-strait tensions by drastically moving towards independence or altering its status quo. 

Lai has begun to address these concerns. During his swear-in ceremony as DPP chairman in January, he vowed to uphold Tsai’s “four commitments” to safeguarding Taiwan’s free and democratic constitutional system, national sovereignty, and the rights of all Taiwanese to determine the future of the nation. 

Lai has also demonstrated a willingness to pursue meaningful conversation with Beijing. He said in April that Taiwan and China can coexist as “brothers” and thrive together, just as the Pacific Ocean is big enough to allow for competition between China and the United States.

While Lai may be willing to adopt a softer stance on China, there is little indication that Beijing would be open to interactions with a DPP president. Director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Song Tao said in February that his government welcomes a conversation with any of Taiwan’s political parties as long as it adheres to the shared political foundation of the “1992 Consensus,” which recognizes that there is only one China but is open to interpretations by the both sides.

Neither the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) nor the DPP is expected to make major concessions on their rules of engagement, which suggests that a Lai presidency will continue to see a strained cross-strait relationship with possible repercussions in economic and people-to-people ties while official interactions between the two governments remain at an impasse.

Hou You-yi: ‘blank slate’ on cross-strait relations

The police-turned-politician Hou You-yi was recently described by the New York Times as a popular moderate with a “blank slate” on the thorny China question, but supporters and opponents alike are eager to see what substantive foreign policy Hou will propose to fill in that blank.

The KMT promotes closer ties with China. In the past, the party has relied on the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit agreement between the KMT and the CCP on the “one China” principle that purportedly allows ambiguity in the interpretation of China.

However, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping redefined the Consensus in 2019 as equivalent to “one country, two systems,” which was also Beijing’s false promise to Hong Kong.

Former President Ma Ying-jeou said in April that the 1992 Consensus has been “brought back to life,” following his trip to China, during which he met with senior CCP officials as well as the TAO’s Song Tao. The KMT reaffirmed that the “1992 Consensus” would remain vital to the party’s ability to engage with Beijing.

As the party’s presidential candidate, Hou encourages the resumption of cross-strait exchanges but has yet to endorse the “1992 Consensus” as the foundation to engage with Beijing. When asked about his stance, Hou avoided mentioning the “1992 Consensus,” but said that he was opposed to both “one country, two systems” and “Taiwanese independence.” 

While Hou remains silent on Taiwan-PRC relations,  he used “glass and water” as an analogy in April to describe the relationship between Taiwan and the ROC, suggesting that neither would do well without the other.

Much remains to be seen until Hou unveils a concrete cross-strait policy. This caution towards relations with China is new for the KMT, whose presidential candidates traditionally touted their abilities to engage with Beijing. 

If Hou’s discretion is reflected in his China policy, he may represent a more tempered approach to managing peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which Washington may find agreeable. 

Ko Wen-je: maintaining ‘dynamic equilibrium’

During his recent campaign kickoff, former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je vowed to make Taiwan more than a “chess piece,” but a bridge to facilitate dialogue between the U.S. and China. Though Ko believes that he is in a unique position to accomplish this vision, the TPP will first have to demonstrate that it is a trustworthy partner for both Washington and Beijing.  

Whereas both the DPP and KMT have established working relationships with Washington in their past administrations, the TPP, founded by Ko in 2019, has little experience and credibility for Washington.

Ko tried to address his party’s relative obscurity in Washington in his visit to  the U.S. in April. During his trip, Ko met with undisclosed high-level officials at the American Institute of Taiwan’s Washington headquarters, after which he shared his understanding of the U.S.’s basic principle of “no surprises.”

During a fireside chat with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s China Power Project, Ko defined his party’s approach to relations with the U.S. and China as “dynamic equilibrium,” which suggests that Taiwan should remain flexible and play a reactionary role to the stimuli produced by Washington and Beijing. This would theoretically encourage China to act in good faith while Taiwan upholds its autonomy and interests. 

The success of such a strategy for Taiwan would depend on levels of trust and coordination among Taipei, Washington, and Beijing that have not been plainly evident in the three-way relationship thus far.   

Ko intends to resume engagement with Beijing, which is traditionally regarded as the KMT’s forte. Instead of relying on an ambiguous “1992 Consensus,” Ko proposes a straightforward alternative in the “five mutual principles” doctrine, for Taipei and Beijing to “know, understand, respect, cooperate with, and forgive” one another. 

It is unclear if Beijing will see Ko as a trustworthy partner, but Ko points to the annual Taipei-Shanghai twin-city forums he held as mayor as evidence of his working relationship with China. 

Much like the 2020 elections, the results of the 2024 elections are crucial to Taiwan’s future in the face of increasing Chinese aggressions.

But unlike 2020, the degree to which voters value cross-strait communication as a means to maintain peace may also become an important factor on the ballot. The inclusion of a major third-party candidate can also significantly influence the outcome even if the TPP doesn’t come out on top.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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