Here’s why the result of Taiwan’s election is bad news for the US

In 2023, the volume of trade between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait was $268 billion. This means Taipei traded more with its main adversary, Beijing, than with its foremost ally, Washington. And for Chinese business, Taiwan was a more important counterparty than the state’s key strategic partner, Russia.

These facts are important for an understanding of the current relationship between the two parts of China. They are inextricably linked not only by the commonality of language, history, and culture, but also by hundreds of thousands of trade and production contracts. And this may prove to be a decisive factor in the long-term struggle for the island between the great powers.

The elections in Taiwan on January 13 did nothing to change this. On the contrary, apart from pro-American candidate Lai Qingde’s victory (with a far-from-solid 40% of the vote), the parliamentary elections revealed the defeat of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which lost its majority and ten seats in the Legislative Yuan to the conventionally “pro-Chinese” Kuomintang Party.

The outcome has made the island’s power system somewhat unstable, suggesting that the main battle between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan is yet to come. However, the US has only one undeniable advantage in this war – the ability to pump its proxy with weapons and defense systems in anticipation of a violent conflict. China, on the other hand, has far more leverage. Thus, in the coming years, Beijing won’t try to solve the Taiwan problem militarily: on the contrary, it will attempt to turn America’s “Pyrrhic victory” on January 13 into a final US defeat in the next elections on the island.

In his first post-election comments, winning candidate Lai (who won’t officially become president until May) spoke in a peaceful way about Beijing and Sino-Taiwanese relations, without in any way trying to demonstrate a desire to unilaterally declare the island’s independence. US leaders have also spoken in the same vein, stressing that they intend to develop only “informal” relations with Taiwan, while continuing to be guided by the “One-China” principle.

As a result, Taiwan is now well aware that the path to independence is a dead end, as none of Taipei’s closest allies will endorse the move or recognize the existence of an “alternative China.” The path of maintaining the status quo, on the other hand, is the most unstable, because in this case the sword of Damocles of armed conflict between the US and China will hang over Taiwan, in which the island risks losing its entire economy and many thousands of its citizens’ lives.

The only option for Taiwan in the long term is a compromise with mainland China; some kind of full-fledged arrangement that will allow the island to maintain the way of life and economic system that it’s accustomed to, and that will allow Beijing to consider the question of reunification closed, or at least with a clear, if distant, solution.

Hong Kong may partly serve as a model for such a solution, but in the case of Taiwan, the compromise is likely to be much softer. Beijing and Taipei could agree on a roadmap to reunification by 2049 – ending a century-long cycle of confrontation. That plan could well lead to a union state along the lines of the EU or Russia and Belarus.

Of course, such an outcome would be good for all Chinese on both sides of the strait, as it would remove all risk of armed conflict or a ‘hostile takeover’ of Taiwan by the PRC. These are precisely the outcomes feared by all those who voted for Lai on January 13.

Only one country would be extremely disadvantaged by such a cross-strait arrangement, namely the US. Washington has invested too much in the doctrine of containment of China, in the formation of a chain of military and political alliances around its borders and a defense belt on the island of Taiwan itself, to lose this “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Of course, the Americans will do everything in their power to oppose any kind of agreement between the two parts of China, whatever it may be.

But attempts to move Taiwan away from Chinese shores and closer to the US coast are geographically meaningless. As Beijing’s economic power grows, the importance of the Sino-Taiwan economic relationship will only increase (even if bilateral trade temporarily declined in 2023). The status quo that Washington has fought so hard to preserve is actually more favorable to China. It seems that President Lai Qingde will prove to be a much more balanced politician than the outgoing leader, Tsai Ing-wen. If this is the case, it may well come to pass that the January 13 elections were actually won by Beijing, not Washington.


Kirill Babaev, PhD, director of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, professor of the Financial University, and deputy chairman of the Presidium of the National Committee for BRICS Research.

This piece was originally published by Izvestia, translated and edited by the RT team

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