China threat looms large as Taiwan votes in pivotal election: 'choice between war and peace'

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The first votes are being counted as the future of Taiwan hangs in the balance with the country waiting to hear who its next president is in what remains a closely watched contest with intense interest from China and the U.S. 

“This election has been a real test for whether the Taiwan electorate is willing to push back against Chinese pressure and coercion and make an independent choice for who they want to be their next leader,” Matt McInnis, senior fellow for the Institute for the Study of War’s China program, told Fox News Digital. 

“That choice is going to determine the nature of the security situation over the next four years — in particular in the western Pacific,” McInnis said, noting the most expected result will see the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win. 

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Taiwan 2024 presidential election

People vote for the presidential election at a polling station in southern Taiwan’s Tainan city on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. Taiwanese are casting their votes Saturday for a new president in an election that could chart the trajectory of its relations with China over the next four years. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The DPP faces stiff competition from the Koumintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, which has tried to cast the ruling party as dangerous leadership that will steer the country towards conflict with China due to its insistence on pursuing formal independence. 

However, early results showed William Lai’s DPP with a comfortable lead of around 40% of the vote compared to KMT’s 33% after around 40% of the vote had been counted. One voter, who only gave his name as Wang, told Fox News Digital that he believed those who voted for third-place TPP were “stupid.” 

In Kaohsiung voters watch the results come in on large screens in Taiwan’s presidential election. (Eryk Michael Smith)

McInnis noted that Taiwan officials have already highlighted “pervasive” Chinese information operations “at unprecedented levels,” framing the election as a “choice between war and peace.”

China has not publicly named a preferred candidate or specified what the “right” choice is, but Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office labeled DPP’s candidate William Lai as an “obstinate Taiwan independence worker” who would further promote separatist activities. 

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Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry condemned China for “once again blatantly intimidating the Taiwanese people and the international community” and trying to influence the election.

“China has tried to shape that narrative over the past 10 to 12 months, and I think they’ve been fairly effective with that,” McInnis explained, arguing that “China’s influence operations, psychological operations during the campaign… ultimately is not dramatically swinging the election in the way they would like it to.” 

William Lai

Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate William Lai votes in southern Taiwan’s Tainan city on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.  (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Beijing has employed other tactics to influence Taiwanese voters, including economic pressure and some broad military coercion: China launched a satellite on Tuesday that flew over Taiwan as it exited the atmosphere, and some surveillance balloons wandered into Taiwan’s airspace, China expert Gordon Chang told Fox News Digital. 

“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping in his 2024 New Year message actually listed the annexation of Taiwan in the portion of his speech where he put all the things he hoped would occur [this year],” Chang explained. “Of course, there have been threats to cut off trade, they have worked very closely in China with some of the candidates in Taiwan, so the election interference has been substantial.” 

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Chang also noted the negative impact China’s pressure has had on its ambitions, prompting the voters to instead focus on geopolitical issues and “issues of identity.”

“Those who identify as Chinese only [on Taiwan] is usually less than 5%, and that is the core support of KMT,” Chang said. 

KMT Presidential Candidate Hou Yu-Ih

Hou Yu-ih, presidential candidate for the Kuomintang and mayor of New Taipei City, arrives for a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, on Thursday. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Chang called Taiwan’s election “fascinating,” arguing that even if China’s preferred candidate should win, he expects to see “friction” between the island and the mainland. 

“If you have a pro-China president… there’s going to be friction regardless of who was elected, and we have just got to make sure we do not permit China to interfere anymore,” he said. 

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xi jinping military

 Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews the honour guard during a welcome ceremony at The Great Hall of the People on November 22, 2023 in Beijing, China.  (Florence Lo – Pool/Getty Images)

Lai has tried to reach out and start a dialogue with Beijing following eight years of near-total non-communication, but insisted that he would continue to “build up Taiwan’s defense deterrence, strengthen Taiwan’s capabilities in economic security, enhance partnerships with democracies around the world and maintain stable and principled leadership on cross-Strait relations.” 

Lai has also, in turn, portrayed the KMT as a pro-Beijing group, which has various levels of allegiance to the mainland ranging from a similar stance to the DPP’s own to one that seeks distance with the U.S. to maintain strong, positive relations with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to The Diplomat. A small number of die-hard party members still seek reunification with China — a stance at odds with the opinion of the public.

Taiwan People's Party rally

Supporters of Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) attend an election campaign rally in Taipei, Taiwan, on Thursday. (Annice Lyn/Getty Images)

Heino Klinck, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and military attaché to China, puts a lot of weight on public sentiment to maintain autonomy. 

“The election in Taiwan is a manifestation of what a vibrant democracy looks like,” Klinck told Fox News Digital, calling Taiwan “a very striking juxtaposition to what the People’s Republic of China represents.” 

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“It evolved relatively peacefully from an autocratic one-party nation to a very, very vibrant democracy in all its forms, and it shows you that democracy can work,” Klinck added, suggesting that, “From a U.S.-Taiwan bilateral perspective… whoever will be leading [Taiwan], it’s not going to change much.” 

“I could see nuances in the approach that a new Taiwanese president, depending on who it is, will take with respect to the cross-Strait relationship and, more specifically, from a national security and defense perspective,” Klinck explained. He highlighted concerns that the KMT might “roll back some of the progress that has been made under the leadership of President Tsai [Ing-wen].”

Klinck visited Taiwan as part of a delegation from the Ronald Reagan Foundation to demonstrate the strong ties between the U.S. and Taiwan and meet with Tsai, who stressed the shared values of freedom and democracy between the two countries. 

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Klinck stressed that as much as the election itself matters, he would suggest keeping an eye on the months between the election and the inauguration in May, during which time he expects Beijing to ramp up pressure on the president-elect — especially in the event DPP’s Lai does win. 

“I envision that the Chinese will escalate their pressure on the president-elect because the inaugural speech will set a tone and the Chinese will try to influence that tone,” Klinck said. 

Fox News’ Eryk Michael Smith, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. 

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