Domestic Politics in Taiwan and the U.S. Drive Taiwan’s Mainland Policy

A delegation of Harvard faculty and associates visited Taiwan for a series of high-level briefings and dialogues with government officials and policymakers and academics from all major political parties from January 16-20, 2023. The annual trip is part of the Taiwan Studies Workshop of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. The purpose of the trip was to assess political developments in Taiwan, particularly in the context of Taiwan’s relations with mainland China and the United States.

As one might expect, three intertwined issues dominated the discussions: cross-strait relations, United States policy, and domestic politics on the island.

Little Sense of Imminent Crisis

Despite increasingly aggressive rhetoric coming from Beijing officials in the past year, Taiwan society does not appear to be living in fear of an imminent mainland invasion. When members of our delegation made or solicited predictions around a possible invasion, the Taiwan counterparts demurred, suggesting that this scenario is not being considered as a serious one at this time.  

The exception to this was the meeting with defense officials. In our discussions with them there was an emphasis on the mainland threat, particularly cyber and cognitive warfare. There was also optimism about the impact that the extended service requirement would have on morale and the quality of the military. The commitment to asymmetric warfare was obvious as were lessons drawn from the war in Ukraine regarding decentralization, social resilience, civil defense and command and control via domestically procured networks that function like Starlink. 

In the meantime, there seems to be little communication between Taiwan and mainland China on everyday matters. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the cabinet body charged with managing cross-strait relations, seems to have very little business, other than crime issues, with the mainland. One official noted that while means to contact the mainland are still in existence, when Taiwan officials reach out, the other side doesn’t respond.

Campaign Positioning Dominates

Political leaders were also focused on the presidential elections planned for January 13, 2024, as well as current political shake-ups. The Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, and with it the DPP-led elected government, are undergoing a restructuring with a transition in leadership (a new Premier and Party chair). The DPP appears to be trying to portray Vice President William Lai Ching-te, assumed to be the DPP presidential candidate, as a responsible leader who would follow President Tsai Ing-wen’s policies and not destabilize cross-strait relations with talk of independence. His approach, we were told, would be one of “status quo and peace.” 

Chu Li-lun, Chairman of the Kuomintang, or KMT, talks as if he is the KMT nominee for president, although that is uncertain as Hou you-yi, the KMT Mayor of Taipei, lurks in the background.  KMT members seemed to be signaling that either candidate could be trusted to resist mainland pressures for progress toward unification and to maintain DPP defense policies to deter the mainland and to continue to enhance defense cooperation with the United States. 

Ko Wen-je, Chairman of the Taiwan People’s Party, continues to communicate vaguely about his policy preferences. His message seems to be that he, as an MD and surgeon, is more pragmatic than other politicians who are hamstrung by ideology.

No New Mainland Policy Ideas

While there is little sense of imminent crisis, Taiwan’s future mainland policy seems to dominate domestic policy. Discussions around this topic occurred in all our meetings with leadership from the three political parties. 

There were no ideas about a new approach to the mainland coming from the KMT or the DPP. 

There seemed to be a clearer recognition than we have heard before from KMT insiders that the “1992 consensus”—which rests on an agreement between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party that there is only one China (though both sides define China differently)—is not a viable position for the KMT. KMT policymakers realize that it is simply unpalatable to voters in the formulation demanded by the mainland. But it is still not clear that the KMT has converged on a clear alternative, and the Party seems unwilling to jettison the concept altogether. 

After six years out of power, the KMT’s clearest policy position is that it is not the DPP. This is reflected in the slogan that “a vote for the DPP is a vote to send young people to battle” (票投民進黨 ,青年上戰場) —a slogan that blue media and KMT supporters used in the 2022 local elections and that some within the KMT clearly see as an effective campaign message for 2024. But the KMT does not yet seem to have a unified position on the policies it would adopt vis-à-vis the PRC and the U.S. if it were to win back the presidency. 

The same can be said for Ko Wen-je and the Taiwan People’s Party: Ko has a clear critique of the major parties’ approaches to cross-strait relations, but doesn’t yet articulate an alternative approach to cross-strait relations that moves beyond the city diplomacy that he engaged as mayor of Taipei.  

The main focus seems to be getting elected—regardless of Beijing’s response: In one exchange with the KMT, when a member of our delegation laid out an approach that was likely to be ignored by the mainland, the KMT insider replied the first objective would be to get elected. Only after that would they think about the mainland reaction. Younger KMT members displayed enthusiasm and involvement in the discussions about mainland policy but had little in the way of new ideas. Similar to politicians in other democracies, KMT leaders seem to prefer to avoid controversial issues during the presidential campaign, rather than present alternative policy options. 

The DPP, meanwhile, appeared to emphasize that their future approach would be moderate, in the tradition of President Tsai Ing-wen. Some of the leaders we met with talked about the possibility of launching small initiatives on specific issues, such as starting cross-strait flights (one of our interlocutors has since taken a government post). Still, if one is looking for new ideas from either major party during this election year the audience will be the public in Taiwan and not the mainland and thus will probably have no new fresh ideas except a commitment to improving relations with the mainland in the vaguest terms. Of course, it should be noted that the rigid stance of the mainland and its incompatibility with the political mood in Taiwan narrows the political space available for Taiwan parties to formulate a cross-strait policy.

Managing U.S. Uncertainties

Recent U.S. actions—the August visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which provoked military exercises by mainland China around Taiwan, and statements by President Biden that the U.S. will defend Taiwan—have sparked new discussion of U.S. policy among Taiwan policymakers.  On one hand, the potential candidates of the two major parties, perhaps concerned that Washington might deem them too provocative, seem to be trying to stress their even-handed approach toward Beijing. (Early American doubts about Tsai affected her candidacy in 2012.)  All seemed to be very careful to stress their moderate positions toward China and support for American policy.

On the other hand, Taiwan policymakers also expressed some concern about provocative moves that might come from the United States as a result of a Republican-controlled House and an upcoming 2024 election. They seemed to agree with the risk of U.S. Congress “loving Taiwan to death,” as suggested by delegation member Tom Christensen, a professor at Columbia University. (Specifically, there was an awareness of potential risks if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visits, as assumed.) Also, some KMT policymakers are concerned about the dangers of too close alignment with the United States. (The late Chu Yun-han, Professor of Political Science at National Taiwan University and President of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, had expressed such concern in an article). This is a difficult position to articulate in the current environment as was demonstrated by the negative reaction in the media to Hou You-yi’s recent statement that Taiwan should not be a chess piece of big powers. This was characterized by one DPP observer as a “regurgitation” of mainland propaganda (a good indication of the tone of political dialogue in Taiwan). 

This danger of U.S. politics destabilizing cross-strait relations seemed to be well understood by government officials.  We were told on multiple occasions that we should notice that the Taiwan government has remained silent on many D.C. statements advocating closer and potentially provocative political ties with Taiwan. That said, we did not observe any resolve to dissuade U.S. politicians from making even the most destabilizing statements or from advocating the most destabilizing policies. No one wants to be seen as rejecting expressions of U.S. support or as being unable to maintain the support of “pro-Taiwan” U.S. politicians.

Thomas Christensen, James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

Steven Goldstein, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies Associate; Sophia Smith Professor of Government, Emeritus, Smith College

Lev Nachman, Assistant Professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei

Sarah Newland, Assistant Professor of Government, Smith College

Robert Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College; Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies Associate