10 January 2024
Schrödinger’s Island: Taiwan Election 2024
By Gwynne Dyer
Taiwan’s fate is as unknowable as usual, even though we know who the next president will be. William Lai, vice-president under outgoing President Tsai Ing-Wen, will almost certainly win the election on Saturday, because the two opposition parties failed to agree on a joint candidate and will split the slightly-less-anti-China vote between them.
Tsai, who is retiring after eight years in the presidency, could still win re-election today if she had not reached the two-term limit. Lai is cut from the same cloth: firmly against enforced ‘unification’ with China, and careful always to tend the not-quite-alliances with the United States and Japan that hold Beijing at bay.
So no real change on the international front, even though president-for-life Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China continues to insist that he will use force, if necessary, to bring Taiwan back under the rule of the ‘motherland’.
It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat, really. Maybe the island of Taiwan and its 23 million people are an offshore province of China, temporarily separated from the mainland by the losers in the Chinese Civil War when they retreated there with a million soldiers in 1949.
Or maybe it’s a Pacific island (the original home of the ancestors of all the Pacific islanders) that was conquered and settled by a wave of Chinese immigrants in the 1600s and 1700s, fell into Japan’s hands in the late 1800s, was ruled from Beijing for four years from 1945 to 1949, and is now independent in all but name.
All those things are potentially true, but we will only know which set of facts stays relevant when China conquers Taiwan, or when the current pseudo-Communist regime in Beijing collapses and its successors recognise Taiwan’s independence, Schrödinger’s Island. Long may that box remain closed.
President Xi has raised the volume of the threats and curses that Beijing regularly hurls at Taiwan’s government, and Chinese military incursions into Taiwan’s waters and airspace have certainly grown, but there is no sense in either country that war is imminent.
It’s definitely not a major issue in this election. All three parties acknowledge that China will be able to attempt a sea-and-air invasion of Taiwan within five years, as its military build-up continues. But they also know that such an invasion might fail, and all three parties support expanded military spending in Taiwan to keep that doubt alive in Beijing.
If there were a referendum in Taiwan today on declaring independence from China (and Beijing didn’t threaten to invade to stop it), a large majority of Taiwanese would vote ‘yes’. But they are also realists and would be quite content to live with the current status quo indefinitely.
Frankly, most voters in Taiwan have learned to live with a certain level of uncertainty about the Chinese military threat and don’t waste time obsessing about it. The cost of living, housing availability and low wages will decide most votes, because Taiwan’s economy is suffering a post-Covid slump – not as severe as China’s, to be sure, but bad.
This means that the future President Lai may have to get his policies past a majority coalition of the opposition parties in the Yuan (parliament). No big deal; this has happened before in Taiwan. In fact, the three major parties are all fairly close together in their economic and social policies, so the deal-making should be quite easy.
As a model for what all of China could and one day might be, Taiwan is encouraging. It is one of the most democratic countries in Asia, and also the most tolerant. (It was the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage.) GDP per capita in Taiwan is six times higher than in China, and yet wealth inequality is much less in Taiwan than it is in China.
Under the brutal dictatorship of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party that fled the mainland and ruled the island for thirty-five years, the people of Taiwan suffered as much as the mainland Chinese did under Mao Zedong’s Communists. If they have managed a non-violent transition to the democratic and prosperous present, why not the mainlanders too?
In the meantime, however, this fortunate island’s fate is largely out of its own hands. The long-standing US ‘guarantee’ of Taiwan’s security is deliberately ambiguous: the Americans might or might not actually show up if China invaded. Indeed, if Donald Trump is president by this time next year, he might just sell Taiwan down the river.
And then there’s the Great Imponderable. Xi Jinping appears to be putting Taiwan into the same role in his ‘heritage project’ that Vladimir Putin gave to Ukraine. Both men have recently passed 70, and they both seem to think that ‘reuniting the motherland’ would be a fitting monument to their glory.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Frankly…easy”)