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The people of Taiwan elected Lai Ching-te as president earlier this month, giving the Democratic Progressive Party another four years in control of Taiwan’s executive branch. Many of the headlines about this result focused on China’s response. But observers should take a moment to appreciate both Taiwan’s successful exercise of democracy and the smart messaging from officials in Taipei and Washington before, during, and after the elections.
Taiwanese and American leaders played election night wisely. Lai Ching-te struck exactly the right tone in his victory speech. He steadfastly committed to “maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” but also offered to “pursue exchanges and cooperation with China.” This was hardly the flamethrowing language of which Chinese officials have accused Lai. If anything, his comments signaled a willingness to chart a new path for cross-Strait relations (even if remains unlikely that Beijing will reciprocate).
Before the election, officials back in Washington emphasized that they supported Taiwan’s democratic processes and took no position on Taiwan’s choice of leaders. A White House staffer noted that “regardless of whom is elected, our policy toward Taiwan will remain the same.” To reinforce this point, a bipartisan group of former officials landed in Taipei to congratulate the president-elect and also meet with other political leaders who had contested the election. After all, Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party will remain important political actors in the years ahead as they together account for a majority in Taiwan’s legislature.
That is not to say that everything went exactly according to plan. President Joe Biden, who has said four times that he would defend Taiwan, only stated after the election that “we do not support independence.” Biden’s statement was consistent with administration policy, but this is only one piece of a larger puzzle. It was important therefore that his administration had already put out clear talking points that placed this remark in a broader context.
The basic bargain that American leaders must embrace is making clear that the United States intends to uphold deterrence to “maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” yet “does not take a position on the ultimate resolution of cross-Strait differences, provided they are resolved peacefully.” This is a fine line to walk, but it is the right message for China, Taiwan, and the rest of the world. By getting out ahead of the election with a clear message, officials avoided Biden’s remarks distracting too much from the successful exercise of democracy in Taiwan.
Unfortunately, while Taiwan and the United States avoided steps that would increase cross-Strait tensions, China sought to increase the pressure on Taiwan. Beijing reportedly offered $100 million to Nauru in order to peel the island nation away from the list of Taiwan’s dozen remaining diplomatic allies. American and Taiwanese leaders will have to be on the lookout for additional Chinese steps, such as conducting military exercises or putting on more economic pressure.
The fact that China pulled out its usual playbook of pressure tactics on Taiwan, despite Lai’s restrained victory speech, only highlights the failure of its recent policies. Chinese leaders can continue to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, threaten it militarily, and coerce it economically. But these policies have not brought about the political changes that Chinese leaders seek in Taiwan – instead, they have likely inhibited them. Continuing to do the same thing and hoping for different results is not a recipe for success.
With the election over, attention now turns to Lai’s inauguration in four months on May 20. China has reacted badly to a number of recent inauguration speeches, including those of Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen. As a result, experts will be alert to this date as the next potential hurdle that all sides will have to manage responsibly to get through 2024 without another cross-Strait crisis.
As we look forward to Lai Ching-te’s inauguration we should not lose sight of the fact that Taipei and Washington have just shown that they can be good stewards of cross-Strait relations. The year ahead will contain many challenges, but at least events earlier this month proved to be a dog that didn’t bark.
Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.